How to Break into the Elite review – our prejudiced society in action

Amol Rajan’s film exposed how employers recruit in their own image to maintain the unequal status quo. What a horrific waste of talent

We live in a society that sees some of the best minds of every generation squandered because they are not expressed in the right accent or presented in the right clothes.

That was the conclusion it was difficult to avoid by the end of Amol Rajan’s documentary How to Break into the Elite (BBC Two). It looked at the likelihood of today’s youth being able to replicate his journey from state school boy in south London to BBC media editor, and showed the progress – or otherwise – of graduates from various backgrounds as they attempted to start their professional lives.

They included Amaan (Birmingham state school, first in economics from the University of Nottingham; “I knew I didn’t want to be a product of my environment”), with his ambition to work in equity sales in a merchant bank. There was also Ben (the only solidly middle-class case study, privately educated at Dulwich College), who is hoping for a career in sports journalism; his parents would prefer he follow in his father’s lawyerly footsteps. There was Elvis from Dagenham, who wants to be a City trader. His mother used to clean the Morgan Stanley offices and suggested he try to get a job there. So, he set his face against his schoolfriends’ ideas of a good time and got a 2:1 in political economy from the University of Birmingham, becoming the first member of his family to get a degree. “The least I can do,” he says as he sets off for his first interview, “is give my mum back a little bit of something. Even if it is just the idea of me being successful. That would be enough to make her happy.” He is too young to know that this alone is surely enough to make her heart burst with pride.

We promise our children a meritocracy. If they can keep their heads in their books while all around them are losing theirs at nightclubs, if they can fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds’ worth of A-level revision done, then theirs will be the world and everything that’s in it.

We promise our children a lot of things, but eventually they have to face the real world, which has little interest in fairness and a lot of interest in recruiting in its own image to perpetuate itself as safely as possible. This was better illustrated by various statistics from experts such as the sociologist Dr Sam Friedman than by the graduates’ experiences. This was partly because the plural of anecdote is not data – although the former humanises the latter – and partly because the statistics were so striking: for example, a third of the population is working class and only 10% of that third work in elite jobs – in which they earn on average 16% less than their more privileged peers.

So many intangible factors, the kind that cannot be quickly learned or easily faked, carry a premium: confidence, codes of politeness, knowing what to wear, just … fitting in. After a knockback, Elvis noted cheerily that “no one’s reminded of themselves when they look at me”.

We saw Ben benefit from the confidence life has given him to bluff his way through difficulties while on work experience. Meanwhile, at least one of Elvis’s interviews seemed likely to have foundered when he explained that he didn’t fully understand the question (“They said they were worried I couldn’t operate under pressure”). Amaan’s crippling anxiety when required to speak in a formal setting was so overwhelming that it would have taken a candidate from any background out of the equation. The point, of course, is that a person born with more advantages would be less likely to suffer from it to the same extent, or would have been trained out of it.

It was an hour that made clear that none of the candidates but Ben had the ineffable “polish” for which elite employers look. It made equally – and, thanks to Rajan, passionately – clear that this should not be a recruitment requirement, serving only to reward those who look, sound and act like those already there. It made clear that someone who hacks his or her own path through an obstacle-filled life to arrive at the interview room should immediately be worthier of consideration than someone who has slipped down a polished chute to the same place. If employers would let the scales fall from their eyes, they would see a world of potential that is being left to rot by, at best, their ignorance and idiocy and, at worst, multitudinous enduring prejudices.

What a morally unspeakable waste. Or, to put it in terms a CEO somewhere might care about, what a lucrative pool of assets waiting to be tapped by someone clearsighted enough to see it. Sign them up.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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