It was in the blistering heat of early summer—a heavy kit bag strapped to his back—that my father collapsed and died of a heart attack. He was 37 and was serving with the British army in Cyprus just after the Turkish invasion of the mid-1970s. I was only in my teens back then, but I still remember my father worrying over what he would do once he got to “Civvy Street”. He’d served almost 20 years and was due to leave the army two years later.
One vivid memory I have is my father planning on working for himself in some capacity. He thought very few employers would be interested in him and he feared facing years of unfulfilling work to continue providing for his family. Years later, I wasn’t surprised when my brother set up his own business after he had served in the army. My father’s instinct to look to himself to create his own future stuck with me as I ended up founding a private equity firm of my own some fifteen years ago.
Becoming an entrepreneur and working for yourself is one of the few ways to find stimulating and meaningful work. Just as important, it is one of the last remaining ladders to achieve upward social mobility.
A couple of years ago, much was written about the UK’s then work and pensions secretary, Iain Duncan Smith, and his claim that he could live on £53 a week—broadly the amount someone below 25 would receive on jobseeker’s allowance. There is no doubt that it would be difficult for anyone to live on this amount. Harder still would be the prospect of having to survive on it and never being able to see a way out.
I don’t blame the government for trying to contain the spiralling cost of the welfare state. The benefit system for the unemployed was only ever designed to help those in need through a period of temporary difficulty. The intention was never to make welfare payments a viable alternative to work. But the reality is that many are trapped, let down by an education system that leaves them poorly equipped to take up the well-paid jobs available. Compared to living off meagre benefits, those jobs that are left hold little appeal unless they come with the prospect of advancement.
This is my main point. Most people want to work, but they do not want to work simply to meet their basic needs for food and shelter; they can get that on benefits. What people want is work that will enable them to climb out of poverty and, through hard work, build a better life for their families.
Sadly, the days when Terry Leahy could go from stacking shelves at Tesco to become its CEO have long gone. Recent OECD figures show the UK has one of the poorest records for social mobility among western economies. Our earnings are more likely to reflect our fathers’ than any other OECD country.
Those same figures show that UK social mobility has not changed since the 1970s. Today, for the poorest twenty percent in society, almost half have mothers with no qualifications. For the richest, it is only three percent.
If the government has to cut welfare spending, and I believe it does, then it must also offer people every opportunity to improve their lives. It should not matter where you come from. Everyone should have the same opportunity by having access to quality education, because it is education that is the real engine for advancement. Education does not have to be limited to school-age children.
The government could make a huge impact on social mobility by encouraging a spirit of entrepreneurialism through educational and self-development schemes such as Heropreneurs and similar mentoring programmes.
Social mobility is the real issue faced by this country, not whether a former cabinet minister, who is married to an heiress, can survive on £53 a week.
Martin Bodenham is the founder of Advantage Capital, a London-based private equity firm. Since retiring two years ago, he has taken up writing financial th28riller novels. More information can be found on his website: www.martinbodenham.com