Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Musical chairs

The Guardian Educational Supplement has a piece on its front page about internships, which everyone is getting very exercised about these days. Graduates leverage family connections to get unpaid work experience in prestigious firms and organizations, thus giving themselves a head start in the race for the top jobs.

A similar article a few days ago told of the high levels of stress suffered by teenagers aware that only top marks - As and A*s - in their A levels which get them a place at the best universities.

All of this is symptomatic of a shift that has taken place at the top of the British income distribution. Whilst graduates on the whole have good job prospects, the range of outcomes in income terms has grown wider, as top incomes have soared. Once upon a time, graduate-level jobs would deliver fairly similar incomes, but as the gap between the super-rich and the not quite so rich has grown bigger, the stakes in the race for the top have got higher.

In short, even the higher levels of inequality amongst the wealthy get us all stressed out, as The Spirit Level famously argues. If the difference between the top and the bottom of the graduate workforce is so large, no wonder students are increasingly scrabbling to keep near the top of the heap. If the difference in income between a teacher and banker were smaller, graduates would not have to work for free for daddy's chums after college. Getting people to understand this is tough, because of the overwhelming social and political influences of the winners in this game. But it's one more demonstration of how inequality is bad for everybody - except for the handful of big-time winners at the top.