Going down? Probably not


One of the more memorable characters from British television in the 1990s was Tim Nice-But-Dim – a “thoroughly nice bloke” with good manners, money in his pocket and a job in the City. Tim was also as thick as a plank, but he sailed through life thanks to one thing – his family were rich.

Tim bounced back into the headlines last month following the release of a report on how family wealth affects children’s prospects. Here’s how the Daily Express summed it up: “Nice but dim: Posh but stupid children do better than poor yet gifted.” True, the language won’t win any prizes for subtlety, but it does get to the heart of the matter, which is this: Children from wealthier families, even if have only modest skills, tend to be protected from sliding down the social scale by a “glass floor”.

None of this is all that surprising – most of us have probably met or worked with a Tim Nice-But-Dim. But the report, by Abigail McKnight of the London School of Economics, does offer some hard evidence on how and why the Tims of this world do so well. Her research looks at the economic performance of a group of people in the UK whose cognitive abilities were tested in the 1970s at the age of 5. By the age of 42, people from poorer families who had scored well were less successful at “converting this early high potential into career success”. By contrast, children from wealthier families who had scored poorly at 5 did better in their careers than might have been expected.

What’s happening? Parental education (which is closely tied to family income) is a key factor. Parents with higher levels of education are better equipped to help children overcome early learning problems; better able to provide career and education advice and guidance; likely to encourage children to go to university; and able to invest in private education and coaching, and so on. They also typically have access to useful social networks, and so can pass on job tips and arrange internships. And they’re more likely to encourage a range of “soft skills” in their children, such as self-confidence, presentation and appropriate behaviour.

The glass floor is not restricted to the UK. In the United States, a 2013 report by Richard Reeves and Kimberly Howard for the Brookings Institution also provided evidence that it’s harder to rise up than it is to fall down. The authors estimated that around 250,000 college degrees were awarded in the US in 2011 to modestly skilled children from comfortable backgrounds – the “nice but dim”. By contrast, 400,000 high-skill youngsters from poorer families were unable to complete college. “From a mobility perspective,” they argued, “it would be better if college slots currently taken up by modestly skilled kids who remain at the top were filled instead with the smart, motivated kids who remain stuck at the bottom.”

All this research feeds into the bigger question of how widening income inequality is affecting the life chances of people from poorer families. One impact can be seen in parents’ investment in their children’s education and human capital development. Recent research from the OECD showed that as the gap between rich and poor grows, poorer families are able to invest less in education and skills development (which has serious consequences for economic growth). The gap is also visible in the area of “enrichment,” or broader spending on activities and out-of-school learning. While all families are spending more on enrichment now than in the past, the gap between how much rich and poor parents spend looks to be growing ever wider.

So what’s to be done? Sadly, discussion of these issues can get a little heated. Mention the glass floor and some people assume you’re attacking parents themselves. “Parents should be commended for trying to give their less talented children every chance to succeed,” writes one contributor to The Daily Telegraph. Indeed they should. On the other hand, as Dr McKnight points out in her paper, “A society in which the success or failure of children with equal ability rests on the social and economic status of their parents is not a fair one.”

In response there are a number of obvious policy areas, such as greater investment in early childhood care and improving equity and fairness in education. But there are other issues that matter too, such as the growth of unpaid or low-paid internships. The challenges facing young interns were highlighted recently by the story of David Hyde, a 22-year-old New Zealand graduate who’s currently doing an unpaid internship in Geneva. Every morning, David walks to his office in a suit; every evening, he goes back to his “home” – a leaky tent on the banks of Lake Geneva. In the pricey Swiss city, and without a salary, that’s all he can afford. Speaking to the French-language Tribune de Genève, David summed up his frustration at how such unpaid internships can limit the opportunities of young people whose parents aren’t rich: “In the end, only those with parents who can pay have a chance.”

Useful links

OECD work on inequality, education and early childhood care and education

In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All (OECD, 2015)

PISA 2012 Results: Excellence Through Equity: Giving Every Student the Chance to Succeed (OECD, 2013)

Equity and Quality in Education: Supporting Disadvantaged Students and Schools (OECD, 2012)

Interns are people, too” by Ben Lyons of Intern Aware (OECD Yearbook 2013)

Brian Keeley

Leave a Reply