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How the pandemic has exacerbated our struggle for dignity

David Goodhart’s recent book is a reminder that we need to look out for those whose lives, jobs and purpose are disappearing

Head Hand Heart is part two of David Goodhart’s analysis of how Britain got to be so polarised. A sequel to his post-Brexit hit, The Road to Somewhere, he expands on his central thesis that mass access to university education has created a highly mobile cognitive class that has accrued most of the gains in power, position and income. At the same time (and as a result, he says) working hard, common decency and simply being a good person are no longer valued in the way they used to be.

The reason why this is important, he argues, is because if too many people are encouraged to develop their intelligence (the Head), “then the other aptitudes and skills that society needs will be neglected”. By this he means qualities like effort, empathy, virtue, imagination, courage, and caring – those represented by the Hand and the Heart.

Head Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century by David Goodhart (Allen Lane, 2020)

To compound this, every autumn 1.5 million teenagers up-root from the communities in which they grew up only to return for Christmas and special occasions. If nearly half of your town’s eighteen-year-olds go to university, Goodhart says, there is a high chance that those who don’t go feel they just weren’t good enough to get out. A sense of being undervalued leads to resentment and division that will keep growing unless something is done.

Where his previous book looks at the differences between the rooted Somewheres who mainly voted for Brexit and the mobile, highly educated Anywheres who voted Remain, Head Hand Heart looks specifically at educational attainment and social distinctions in more depth and analyses how status and dignity increasingly coalesce around the cognitive class to the detriment of the rest.

What he is not advocating, though, is restricting access or numbers to university. Quite the opposite. His idea, more important now than ever, is that the other parts of the economy, the manual, technical and caring skills, urgently need our attention. To start with, skills training and apprenticeships need to be as high quality as university degrees and as easy to find.

He describes how Paul Johnson, the Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, tried to help his son Tom find a good apprenticeship. He wanted to be a computer programmer which, apparently, was an area suffering a skills shortage. “You wouldn’t know it from the scarcity of openings.” By comparison, he says, there were hundreds of degree courses offering computer programming.

“Our failure to get enough young people into high-quality, job-based training at eighteen years old creates our skills shortages, low wages and productivity problem.” Goodhart says he has known this for years, but it was only when he personally experienced the difficulties that he really understood the problem.

This makes another important point. If the cognitive class were to recognise and valorise manual work by encouraging their children into it, then surely this would help to spread the status that will in turn lead to improving the access and quality of skills training.

There just aren’t enough university-level jobs for the number of graduates we are producing

As Goodhart admits, this is easier said than done. Twenty years ago, while I was working at the Smith Institute and organising seminars on the subject of “parity of esteem” with policymakers, academics and business leaders, the room nodded in enthusiastic agreement that apprenticeships and skills training should enjoy degree level status (Germany, as always, was mentioned more than once). However, when asked who would encourage their own children away from university and into a practical traineeship, no-one raised their hand.

Goodhart tells the story of the son of another friend who dropped out after the first year at university to follow his dream of becoming a car mechanic. He is now a technician working at VW/Audi and earning more than his contemporaries. He loves his job and the people he works with, but he feels undervalued because he is not a graduate and “finds that on dating websites being a car mechanic puts him at a significant disadvantage”. Considering the fact that few arts graduates could strip a fuel injector, we see how intractable the problem of esteem and status can be.

But there is an even more fundamental problem for Goodhart: there just aren’t enough university-level jobs for the number of graduates we are producing. In the UK, he says, a third of graduates are working in non-graduate jobs five years after leaving university. This, he says, is set to increase as we see more and more graduate-level jobs being replaced by robots and AI.

The reason why this book is so important right now is because the situation he describes – the atomisation of the cognitive elite as against those doing Hand and Heart jobs – is accelerating and metastasising. Covid, while having a very positive impact on the status of caring jobs, has dealt a further blow to those in some manual and service trades.

At Public First, we recently conducted a vast piece of opinion research to look at the state of the nation’s mental health a year on from the first lockdown. Our findings corroborated what Goodhart says about status and income being concentrated in the cognitive class, but the extent to which some of those doing Hand work have been impacted is genuinely shocking and should concern policymakers.

In our poll, a quarter of people with a university qualification say that their personal financial situation had got better or not changed at all since the start of lockdown. In contrast, a quarter of those in the lowest social groups (those least likely to be graduates, and least financially resilient), said the reverse – that their financial situation had got worse.

A furloughed airport baggage handler married to an unemployed office cleaner have not only seen their combined low incomes reduced, but they also face uncertainty about the future of their roles. These were jobs which did not have high status before, but to be made to feel that they are now no longer needed at all adds a particularly cruel twist to their misfortunes.

Lockdown has had a devastating impact on this group of people who no longer know whether the sector they work in will exist when lockdown lifts, let alone whether they will get their jobs back. When we talked to this cohort in our focus groups, it was the sense of not having a purpose that caused people to fall into depression.

Without universities we could not have developed the vaccines that are saving our lives

At the same time, many others in the Heart occupations (frontline NHS workers), and those in Hand employment (supermarket shelf-stackers), have seen their status rise quite dramatically. Of the general population, 73 per cent think that the roles carried out by critical workers has become more valued as a result of the pandemic. The fact that we call them “key” or “critical” workers tells its own story. Look at the rainbow paintings in windows supporting the NHS and the new-found self-assurance of the security guards at every supermarket doorway.

But for the non-critical, non-cognitive trades, the opposite is true. One previously ambitious young man who had worked as a successful head chef but was now furloughed said, “It’s a downward spiral. You wake up knowing you’ve done nothing the day before so you’re already starting your day on a down.”

Lockdowns have created a new gulf between those who lost their jobs or were trapped at home on furlough and those who have continued to work. Many critical workers risked their lives by doing their jobs and the sense of mission and purpose when they spoke in our focus groups was palpable.

A nurse in one group looked at the furloughed and unemployed mothers with bemusement as they talked of the difficulties they were having with home-schooling and going stir crazy, being available to everyone around the clock and feeling forced into old-fashioned gendered roles. How tough was “not getting any me-time” when you compared it to the number of dead bodies that she and her colleagues witnessed at the height of the pandemic?

In many cases, Hand and Heart are having mutually incomprehensible experiences, but it is the “precariat” clustered in manual and service work that is facing a triple whammy: graduates seeping into their jobs from the top; robotisation and AI sweeping them aside; and Covid threatening the sectors that employ them from the bottom.

The group that we need to look out for is the one whose jobs are disappearing

David Goodhart says that Head Hand Heart is a diagnosis, not a policy handbook. He says that Covid has shown us how important Head jobs are: without universities we could not have developed the vaccines that are saving our lives. The status of jobs in frontline health care that need high levels of emotional intelligence has risen immensely. It turns out keeping our supermarket shelves replenished really matters to us.

But the group that we need to look out for is the one whose jobs are disappearing – and their position in society along with it. I hope that David Goodhart decides to write a trilogy and makes this the subject of his next book.

Natascha Engel is a partner at policy and opinion research firm Public First and has recently co-authored the report The Other Pandemic.

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