Hillbilly Elegy


Over the summer I read JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. On one level the book is a fairly conventional rags to riches autobiographical story of the American dream. Despite humble ‘hillbilly’ beginnings JD manages to go to university and end up with a postgraduate law degree from Harvard. However, the book has been hailed as offering insights into Trump’s America (something that it does not overtly claim to do) and so merits a closer read.

As a career narrative the book functions as a fairly subtle discussion of the relationship between career and environment. The argument is made that growing up poor and white in a deindustrialising community in USA creates a significant barrier to the realisation of the American dream of upward mobility. However, the author is also fiercely critical of structuralist interpretations that shift blame entirely onto economic and labour market changes. The hillbilly diaspora of poor white working-class people has undoubtedly experienced some bad economic breaks, but the book argues that they have responded to these changes badly, taking refuge in drink, drugs and the blaming of others. While he has a number of policy ideas about how this situation could be addressed he is also arguing for some cultural changes within his community.

His own story of social mobility is carefully handled. Although JD is clearly a pretty outstanding student, soldier (he spends a few years in the Marines) and now lawyer, he argues that it is not his ability, drive or ambition that accounts for his ability to transcend his background and outperform the expectations of those around him. One of the most interesting themes in the book is what it is he feels can enable (or disable) social mobility. He doesn’t offer simplistic answers, but broadly he argues that there is a need for supportive extended families and communities in geographical proximity with each other which can pick up the slack when parents fail to cope. The book largely operates on this meso level, arguing that we need to look beyond the individual but that the direct involvement of the state often creates more problems than it solves.

I’m not sure that I agree with JD’s analysis, his (moderate) Republican politics come through fairly clearly and I think leave him overly negative about the role of the state. Personally, I think that there needs to be some balance between family, community and professionalised state structures in the raising, educating and career developing of young people. But, I can see how he comes to that conclusion out of his own story and recognise that sometimes the tensions between these different sources of support aren’t well resolved.

Perhaps more importantly many of the social ills that JD Vance attributes to both the white working class and to the state are exactly the sort of things that Donald Trump made his political capital out of. Vance is a considerably more thoughtful, consistent and even-handed commentator than Trump, but the feeling that there are large areas and communities in the USA that aren’t working for anyone is a powerful one.

Vance’s book gives us some insights into this world and helps us to understand, empathise and consider the complexity of solving some of these issues. It is well worth a read.


The class ceiling

class ceiling

Thanks to Steve Rooney for putting me onto the very excellent Class Ceiling website. The site is run by Sam Friedman, Daniel Laurison and Ian McDonald and funded by the ESRC and London School of Economics. It basically documents the enduring importance of class as a way of understanding British society.

The site is full of stories and statistics that make this point. Here are just a few to get you riled up.

  • In higher managerial and professional occupations people from working-class backgrounds earn on average 16% less than those from privileged backgrounds. This amounts to an average of £6,800. This grows if you look at more elite professions such as finance and medicine.
  • Although only a third of the population come from professional backgrounds they make up 73% of doctors, 62% of lawyers and 58% of academics.

This body of research is really valuable for discussions about social mobility and social equity.

Enjoy looking into it and channel your sense of outrage!

The evidence for the impact of good quality career guidance

Tomorrow I’m giving a presentation to providers who offer careers quality awards that are endorsed through the Quality in Careers Standard.

The presentation will be largely based on our report for the Sutton Trust – Advancing Ambitions: The Role of Career Guidance in Supporting Social Mobility.

This is what I thought that I’d cover.

I’m hoping to finish up with a discussion about where we need to take the evidence base next in England.

Career guidance in schools: Rationale and evidence

Today I’m presenting at a seminar organised by the Bridge Group. The Bridge Group are interested in social mobility and higher education and have got increasingly interested in social mobility.

I’ll be presenting some research in the area and drawing off our recent Advancing Ambitions report in particular.

Career guidance in schools: Rationale and evidence

Advancing ambitions: The role of career guidance in supporting social mobility

Today marks the release of a new report that I’ve been working on for a while with the Sutton Trust.

Hooley, T., Matheson, J. & Watts, A.G. (2014). Advancing Ambitions: The role of career guidance in supporting social mobility. London: Sutton Trust.

The report traces recent government policy, arguing that the combination of cuts and poor regulation have seen a decline in the quantity and quality of career guidance in England. It also argues that one of the government’s main failings in implementing these policies has been the failure to monitor the impact of this experiment.

We then go on to try and identify what some of the impacts of career guidance are using data from over 800 schools and sixth form colleges which hold career quality marks and comparing this with other schools which do not hold these quality marks. We find  that there are a number of interesting correlations. So controlling for other factors, we found that schools with the awards had a two percentage point advantage in the proportion of pupils with five good GCSEs, including English and Maths. There was also a small, but significant, reduction in persistent absences (of 0.5%).

In the sixth form, we found that the proportion of students gaining 3 A levels was 1.5% higher in schools and sixth form colleges with the quality awards than other schools, and students also had higher UCAS scores, though the gains were not repeated in general further education colleges. Sixth form colleges with accredited career guidance showed a significant increase in the number of students going to leading universities.

The report then goes on to explore the factors that constitute quality career guidance. It notes the importance of a strong infrastructure to support career guidance, the existence of progressive education programmes, the importance of involving key stakeholders like employers and post-secondary learning providers and the need for a strong focus on the individual in the delivery of careers provisions (e.g. through one-to-one career guidance).

I think that this report is probably the summation of a lot of the work that we have done over the last four years which has explored the Coalition Government’s policies on career guidance. The use of quantitative methods means that we are able to say a bit more about the impacts of having good quality career guidance.

I’d be interested to hear more about what people think about the report once you’ve had a chance to read it.

Alan Bennett on universities and social mobility

I studied Alan Bennett’s plays for my A Level English. Undoubtedly Michael Gove wouldn’t approve. He also wouldn’t approve of Bennett’s recent comments on social mobility, public schools and universities. I’m with Alan on this one….

Alan Bennett, To educate according to the social situation of the parents is wrong and a waste
As a 17-year-old, the odds were stacked against boys like me trying to get into Oxbridge. Sixty years on, it is still unfair – and even un-Christian