The End Of Aspiration by Duncan Exley

The Blurb On The Back:

Why is it getting harder to secure a job that matches our qualifications, buy a home of our own and achieve financial stability?

Underprivileged people have always faced barriers, but people from middle-income families are increasingly more likely to slide down the social scale than climb up.

Duncan Exley draws on expert research and real-life experiences – including from an actor, a politician, a billionaire entrepreneur and a surgeon – to issue a wake-up call to break through segregated opportunity.  He offers a manifesto to reboot our prospects and benefit all.

You can order The End Of Aspiration by Duncan Exley from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Duncan Exley is the former Director of the Equality Trust.  In this damning, fascinating and thought-provoking book that’s amply supported by statistics and academic studies and uses the anecdotal experience of 16 individuals from a wide range of backgrounds and professions, he shows how growing inequality and diminishing opportunities for social mobility go hand-in-hand while emphasising the problems faced by those who rise above their background.

I picked this book up partly because I read some of the press coverage it received around the time of its release and thought that the topic sounded interesting because it is one that particularly resonates with me as I went to a grammar school after passing the 12+ and was the first person in my family to go to university (my parents having left school after their O Levels/CSEs) and the first to join an established profession.  

On that basis, I’m going to be candid and say that I think the reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did and why I found it absolutely fascinating was because I recognised so much of what Exley talks about within it both from the arguments that he makes and from the experiences shared by some of the individuals he interviewed.  This book helped to clarify for me some of the things that I have experienced in my life, e.g. when Exley talks about the role that simple good fortune can have in shaping your future, I realised that I had benefitted from that because I had benefitted from it twice (once when a teacher told my parents that I was bright enough to go to grammar school but wouldn’t pass unless I was drilled in the tests before hand and once when a teacher said I should consider a career in law because I was argumentative and analytical).  It also enabled me to clarify my thinking on the benefits of my having gone to a grammar school and what that meant in terms of social mobility but also helped me to articulate some of the difficulties that I’ve had in navigating my chosen career, e.g. the codes that I don’t always understand and why I’ve never quite understood the networking side of it and focused more on skills, hard work and technical ability.

The book takes a linear approach to social mobility and inequality, starting with opportunities and the impact of your background on your pre-school life and going right the way through school, careers choice, higher education, getting a job, and then getting on with your job.  Exley supplements that by considering whether social mobility matters, the general impact of wealth (or lack of it) on your life and – my favourite chapter – concluding by looking at what can be done to reduce inequality and improve social mobility.  The book is UK specific (although studies from other countries are used where the same help to support a general point or argument) and I think that he’s pretty even-handed in terms of looking at the impact of policies from Labour, the Conservatives and the Coalition – including acknowledging where policies were well-intentioned but had unintended consequences.  

What comes through very strongly in the book is the impact that austerity policies have had in terms of cutting or scaling back programmes that had a beneficial impact on the educational and life chances of children from less privileged backgrounds.  I’ve seen reviews of the book from reviewers who seem to be on the more right wing of the spectrum criticise this as being hand-wringing mumbo-jumbo but the statistics and studies all seem to bear it out.  This brings me to Exley’s excellent point about how people don’t respond to evidence when it contradicts their emotional response and I think he’s right in saying that those of us who are more left of centre than right cannot rely on facts to win people over when we live in a post-truth society.  We do need to create stories and emotional connections around the positions we take (although this doesn’t mean abandoning facts altogether as they do shore up the underlying argument and there are still those of us who care about evidence).  

Exley’s also right to point out that how people resist arguments about middle class privilege because they believe that they are being attacked as being middle class themselves or because they aspire for their children to reach that strata.  I suspect that arguments are more likely to cut through if the focus is on those who have more than the middle income as his arguments all bear out the immense benefits that the wealthier stratas have when it comes to connections, networking and purchasing power.  To be fair, he does do a good job of stressing how people are blind to their own privilege and certainly the examples given from some of the interviewees made me stop and question some of the assumptions I have when it comes to opportunity.

I’ve read some criticism of Exley’s decision to mix interviews into the book and while I appreciate that their evidence is anecdotal, I don’t think that means that it should be discounted.  Certainly, he’s got a broad range of interviewees from famous politicians like David Lammy to solicitor Maria Solomon and entrepreneur Alvin Carpio and I think that their experiences are something that a lot of people can relate to and certainly they help to illustrate Exley’s points.  If I had a criticism of the book it’s that I think it could have gone more into the intersection of race and class because when it does come up, it’s mainly through experiences shared by the interviewees.  As an aside (and this is probably churlish), I would have also liked a bit more about people from the upper social stratas who took jobs or positions traditionally associated with lower social stratas (e.g. aristocrats who became plumbers or tradesmen).

I didn’t disagree with any of the suggestions Exley makes for tackling inequality and improving social mobility and I liked the fact that unlike a lot of writers who are good at diagnosing problems, he does go out of his way to talk about solutions and how arguments against them can be overcome (e.g. the contentious subject of inheritance tax).  I also liked how he kept making the point that educational opportunity isn’t just about exams but about wider opportunities to participate in activities and outside interests.

All in all this is a book that I really connected with and I think that there’s a lot in there that people from all types of background and all political views would very much benefit from reading because it is clear that something very wrong is happening to British society and we need to pay attention and try to fix it.  

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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