My Take

Jobs for the privileged class: all about who, and what, you know

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 02 September, 2013, 3:53am

A probe by US regulators into the hiring practice of JPMorgan in China raises interesting questions about the changing nature of nepotism in a globalised world.

The inquiry by the US Securities and Exchange Commission has not accused the bank of any wrongdoing, but it is looking into its hiring which apparently ran a different job-placement programme for children of prominent families with close ties to the Chinese state.

On one level, there is nothing unusual as this sort of thing is done everywhere, and the hiring of so-called princelings is common among major foreign banks and financial service institutions. But what is most interesting is that many of the princeling applicants reportedly had impressive credentials and qualifications.

The most difficult-to-challenge kind of nepotism is the favoured and well-connected child who is also well-qualified. His or her hiring cannot be so easily dismissed as unmerited or investigated as corrupt. And in international finance and business, that is increasingly the case: a true marriage of the aristocracy of wealth with meritocracy. This has enormous implications for social inequality and mobility.

Corruption and nepotism in developing countries such as China are usually of the more primitive, under-the-table sort, but what we increasingly see in developed countries is the decline of social mobility. Nepotism of the meritocratic kind may be both the cause and symptom.

What successful, educated parents have is not just money, but social capital. The advantage starts at or even before birth as they learn from recent neuro-research of the cognitive gains to be had for even very young infants given the right nurturing environment.

These advantages accumulate as the child attends the best schools and make friends with children of similar privileged background. Soon, instead of racial segregation, you have a social one.

The privileged in developing countries may realise they just got lucky in the genetic lottery.

But rich meritocrats, whether in the US, Hong Kong or the mainland, increasingly think they deserve it - and may be right. Once entrenched, such a class system - into which poor children have little chance of breaking - cannot be so easily challenged or reversed.