56UP: Class Structure Half a Century On

The Seven Up series on British TV is now 49 years old, and the latest, 56UP, aired earlier in the summer.  The series has followed the same set of children from different class backgrounds since 1964, when they were seven. The first film, initiallya one-off special of a general documentary programme World in Action, tested the proposition attributed to Francis Xavier (1506-1552), co-founder of the Jesuit order: “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” The program’s idea has been copied in various parts of the world, including the USA, but nowhere has it been as successful or long-lasting as here in Britain. Since 1964, every seven years a camera crew has followed up on the group of four girls and ten boys.  Some of the group have declined to continue, while others have dropped out and then reappeared. The participants were, and are, asked to reflect on various aspects of their lives. In earlier shows, the director, Michael Apted, asked the children to project their lives forward into adulthood. In mirror images now, he invites them to ponder their pasts. In its own modest way, the series is both gripping and profound in the way it explores the lived reality of the British class system. Each new set of programs adds a new layer of complexity in the way we see people mature and the impact class has on their lives.

The original premise of Seven Up was heavily focused around class.  The director wanted in part to show that the class trajectories of those involved had largely been decided before the point of active citizenship, or even prior to birth. On the whole this thesis has proved to be correct, with the working-class kids largely getting working-class jobs, and their middle-class counterparts enjoying upward mobility.

All the middle-class members of the Seven Up group have done pretty well with the exception of one who has suffered mental health problems since his twenties.  All the others have experienced a predictable, safe, and stable rise in living standards.  For the working-class members of the group, the story is somewhat different.  One has moved up in class status as she has risen through the ranks of university administration. Interestingly, she recognizes that chance has played a part in her career, seeing her life chances and those of her family as contingent on wider social forces as well as considerable personal effort and talent. One of the working-class boys has found social mobility as an academic, working in the USA. Here, too, success is underpinned by state-funded schooling,  especially at the university level.

While other members of the cohort do enjoy some sense of stability, as they get older the program has lighted upon the role aging and especially ill health plays in people’s classed experience. What seems largely a non-issue for the middle-class group is far harder felt with those for whom the working class is home.  Ill health plays out in a variety of ways, limiting life chances here just a bit or seriously compromising the ability to work at others.  One participant, Jackie, for example, developed health issues in her early fifties, so that she cannot work consistently and is forced onto the benefits system. While claiming benefits is not a great option at the best of times, the current government ‘crack-down on the benefits culture,’ in part driven by the financial crisis, means that her claim is under regular scrutiny and sustained threat of being taken away. This situation is compounded by the fact that she lives in social housing in Glasgow and is divorced with three adult sons. The power of these films is in the way they pose so many ‘what ifs?’  Jackie was originally from London.  Had she stayed there, had she not got divorced, or had she not developed health problems, her life may well have been radically different.  Recent statistics show that life expectancy in the UK is heavily driven by class position, and Jackie has found herself in the worst location, statistically, for life expectancy. Men in Glasgow City live to 71.6 years compared to 85.1 years for those in wealthy parts of London. Jackie, as a woman, is slightly better off — the figures for females are 78 and 89.8 respectively.

If stories like Jackie’s emphasize the power of class, others in the group argue that class does not matter.  In 56Up, possibly the most privileged member of the cohort absolutely denies the salience of class. In the original program, John had predicted with chilling accuracy his life course through fee paying school, elite university, then a career in the law. In each respect, the seven-year-old got it spot on, but in the most recent film, John disputes, with some anger, the idea that class has anything to do with the process or the eventual outcome of his life.  As evidence, he notes the way his life had been disrupted by the early death of his father when John was nine years old.  He points out that his mother had to undergo considerable sacrifice in order to maintain his education, although he acknowledges he benefited from fee waivers and charitable support from his elite school to help him on his way. I was struck at the vehemence with which John insisted that class had nothing to do with his current status and lifelong privileges. Indeed, he not only denied that class played any part in his own success but stressed that class no longer mattered much to anyone. He suggested that the whole series, dating back to 1964, had been obsessed with class and that it had been pretty irrelevant even then.

This has been a pattern in the programs between the 1964 original and the current edition, with the more privileged members insisting that class has no effect on their lives.  Through their claims, 56Up captures and implicitly critiques wider assumptions about class in modern Britain amongst elite groups and many of the political class. While middle-class success is seen as the product of individual effort, working-class failure is seen as both a collective and individual cultural failing. There seems to be a complete blind spot when it comes to issues of social structure such as the education system, the ability to access more benign sectors of the labour market, or even to have jobs where age matters less in terms of the physical effort one has to expend to earn a living. By contrast, 56Up records the effects of class on all those involved. One of the obvious but largely unaddressed issues in 56Up is the way the ladders of social mobility enjoyed by the working-class members of the cohort are gradually being pulled up or taken away altogether, meaning that future generations will find their lives tougher still.

So what do we draw from this most recent dip into the UK class system? We can see that class still matters enormously as it structures and underpins life chances and opportunities.  While nearly half a century has elapsed between the original black and white show and its less grainy contemporary counterpart, class privilege continues to play out through subsequent generations. While the working-class members of the panel are content, wistful, regretful, and/or resigned, some of their middle- and upper-class counterparts are angry. This anger is not necessarily the result of the actuality of their lives but seems directed at the production crew for framing their privilege in the language of class. Perhaps it is time for those of us who care about working-class issues to get angry, too. We should get angry at the growing evidence of class disparity in terms of life chances. But we should also reserve some of that anger for those who dispute that class is an issue.

Tim Strangleman

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2 Responses to 56UP: Class Structure Half a Century On

  1. Kathy M. Newman says:

    Thanks for this great reflection on a fascinating project. I remember seeing the project in one of its earlier installments. I didn’t know then that I would grow up to study class, but I wonder now if this project had an impact on my thinking!

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  2. Interesting that the privileged class wants to downplay the advantages they enjoy in opportunity, careers, and income. Perhaps this is related to the popular myth among the elite that the reason they have more money and better jobs is because they are smarter and work harder than the working class. Never mind that daddy paid for college and owns the law firm that offered you a partnership!

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