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The Brutal Truth About How Childhood Determines Your Economic Destiny

The British class system looks frighteningly rigid in "56 Up." But is America any better?

"Give me the child until he is seven," the old Jesuit teachers say, "and I will give you the man."

Back in 1964, filmmaker Paul Almond set out to test that theory by documenting the lives of a group of seven-year-old British children. Some were born to the manor; others grew up in charity homes. There were tykes from both the countryside and the city. Almond wanted to know if the destiny of the children had already been scripted by the circumstances of their birth -- particularly those of class. His film Seven Up! has grown into a series spanning over five decades. Every seven years, like the cycle in some mythological saga, Michael Apted, the assistant on the original project, has returned to these children as they have morphed before our eyes into awkward adolescents, tentative adults, and now, the paunchy survivors of late middle-age.

As bright-eyed children, participants like Jackie Bassett, the product of a working-class neighborhood, or Andrew Brackfield, who attends a posh prep school, are already miles apart in attitude and habits. Tellingly, the children speak very differently about what they see in their future. Those from the higher ranks already know which universities they’ll attend, while Paul Kligarman, who lives at the charity home, asks plaintively, “What’s a university?”

As an American watching the film, you probably have a strong urge to see the youngsters launched on stormy seas overcome their disadvantages. (You may also harbor a sneaking desire to see one or two of the most privileged children, like smug little John Brisby, receive some sort of comeuppance in life.)

It doesn’t go quite like that. When the first film in the series was released in the ‘60s, many believed that postwar affluence had translated into increased mobility and opportunity in Britain. Yet with few exceptions, the Up series shows that the children of cabbies tend to grow up to be cabbies and have children who do much the same. Likewise, the children of barristers grow up to be barristers and bequeath their legacies to future masters of the universe. The truth of the Jesuit adage stares starkly from the screen in the eyes of these real human beings.

Class is a touchy, complicated subject. Is it about money? Education? Tastes? Occupation? Above all, class is about social structure. In the UK the old hierarchical structure based on property in the form of land has stubbornly persisted, reinforced by the banking system. Certainly a variety of factors influence destiny that are not directly connected to that system. We don’t learn much about race in the Up series as just a single participant, one of the charity home boys, is of mixed ethnicity. But we do see that gender wields a mighty influence over fate. The lives of the less wealthy girls appear to be more precarious than those of boys with similar backgrounds. Individual circumstances can twist fate this way or that. The moderately comfortable childhood of Liverpudlian Neil Hughes does not prepare him for the ravages of adult-onset mental illness. Even so, he is able to cling to at least a semblance of middle-class existence as a local politician in Scotland.

Several of the participants in this unique documentary project are visibly uncomfortable with the project's implied commentary on the class system. The less affluent tend to blame themselves for not working hard enough in school to make it to university. John Brisby, speaking for the upper class, attributes his success to personal merit as much as birthright, pointing out the hardship of a parent’s death that caused some financial upheaval for his family. But it’s clear that large socio-economic forces can easily wipe out the individual efforts of the working-class folks. Jackie’s rheumatoid arthritis has crippled her so badly she can hardly button her shirt, and yet the austerity-crazed British government has just reviewed her disability benefits and deemed her able to work. So she relies on the support of her sons to keep food on the table. Her childhood friend Lynn Johnson has lost her job as librarian due to budget cuts, and the pain of falling from security to insecurity burns from her gaze.