If the headlines or twitter feeds are anything to go by, awareness for, or concern for, nepotism is gaining a real pace. Passing on something, be it money or opportunities, is increasingly unpalatable for a public crying out for fairness and a balanced 'dishing out' of success. Also, for those for whom life has become tougher in a post-crash and post-internet democratisation revolution.
There's a danger that people home in on misleading patterns when they stand out, albeit as a minority in a sea of randomness that no-one can criticise. Perhaps nepotism is so rare that it could could be explained purely by chance, but attention pours onto it purely due to the juiciness of the situation, the gossip-appeal, and the chance to 'tut-tut' about the injustice. These situations matter though; they are held up as examples, undermine confidence in an equal playing field which most of us want, and rather like a snowball, seem to lead to more year on year. Purely by watching things change over time, I believe most would see, media-bias allowing, an old trend that is not petering away, but gaining momentum. Is it bad? That is another matter entirely.
In sport, music and acting, three of the most precarious vocations, yet with the highest potential for wealth and fame, examples are seemingly endless. Miley Cyrus, daughter of country singer Billy Ray Cyrus. Damon Hill, son of F1-champion Graham Hill. The Fox acting family, a so-called 'dynasty'. Alfie Allen, actor, is singer Lily Allen's little brother. Most recently, Jos Verstappen's 17 year-old son Max is in Formula One this season.
Forget sport and entertainment. Whilst they have huge cultural impact and can be an indication of the society they exist within, they are after all 'just' games and entertainment. In the real world it isn't a great deal different. It's been a great while since families actually ruled countries in Europe, but in other parts of the world kings and occasionally queens (often there is a link between monarchies and suppressed rights for women) rule in near or full autonomy. Look at history though and you see the folly of this – a lack of inherited quality - but value and talent we'll come on to. Edward II, as one example, was a thoroughly incompetent ruler by many accounts and gained the throne purely due to his father being Edward 'Longshanks' I, a tyrant, but more in keeping with what kings of that era had to do to stay in power. The Kennedys, over decades, in the US held office and positions of remarkable power in a major global democracy where dynasty and family ties should technically have no leverage against democratic elections.
Our own modern royal family in the UK has no actual administrative control and although, let's admit it, it still heavily influences the public and our real leaders, the members of that family are there through randomness of birth. They enjoy and endure both enormous privilege, scrutiny and pressure. This is not a republican agenda – I think that on balance our monarchy has value and should continue. It is cash-positive on practical grounds, and culturally acts as an important bastion of continuity and reminder of our past. Should they influence policy or have any practical handle on the United Kingdom's future? No, not unless otherwise trained and qualified to do so.
What of the connections that rely on family or parentage, but not in such a simple progression as father-son or mother-daughter in the exact same job? Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, statistically highly unlikely as siblings to independently both become movie stars, have a film director as a father and Oscar-nominated screenwriter as a mother. One of the most lucrative singers globally is Taylor Swift, not a rags to riches cliche but instead a highly-choreographed rise to stardom after a childhood of being driven from record label to record label by successful business-parents. In my own 'industry', the American teenager Parker Liautaud secured a series of valuable expedition sponsorship deals despite having a fraction of the experience of many others in the field. His father sold a business company in 2007 for nearly $7bn, but Liautaud regularly states that he benefits neither from cash nor contacts from his family. These statements aren't judgements, but facts that illustrate the discussion which needs to follow.
Music, politics, skiing and exploration, acting. These are all industries in a particular sector – based on audiences and very often on 'soft' skills. What about business where number-crunching or strategic planning matters? From a local butcher's shop passing from father to son, to a FTSE 100 company boss clearing a path for their child into either their own or a connected company. It's not true in every case, it's not an epidemic, but it's not rare. It happens, it always has and it seems to not show any chance of slowing.
The common theme: one generation aiding the next by default.
So, a long list of examples. Some of these situations might be refuted by those they refer to, and some need close attention to work out exactly what happened. For example, the tennis player brothers Jamie and Andy Murray developed their careers from a common source, their ambitious mother. One brother didn't really carve the way for the other, even if one has enjoyed greater success. You probably can't call it nepotism, even if Judy Murray was herself a successful junior and student player and thereafter a coach. It would be unfair, in my view, to claim anything apart from focused and dedicated parenting, regardless of views on 'pushy parents'. There was no stardom or supreme wealth from Judy Murray to rely upon. In other cases, should two members of the same family rise to prominence concurrently, it's hard to unleash scorn upon them for 'unfair advantage'. Timing matters. The footballing Neville brothers are another example. But I know nothing about football so there it ends.
Day to day, these issues of a parent laying out a path for their progeny affect us all and can be very emotionally charged. It can be something as simple as anger as the government claims 40% of a modest personal estate in inheritance tax. Perhaps the potential advantage of a private education that gives university and career leg-ups for the children of wealthy parents. I myself received a private education from the age of four to eighteen, boarding from the age of ten, and then went on to a highly selective university. My parents, both professionals, were not in any sense rich, a relative term of course. For all of those years, my father worked in the public sector and was the sole earner – not a recipe for excess pots of gold and my schooling was a result of sacrifices and careful spending.
So, how do we untangle the complex web of inheritance, leg-ups to the next generation and nepotism? What is fair and square and what is wholly outrageous and against the interests of fairness?
I think there needs to be a judgement made case by case on balance. On the weighing scales are a number of things: success and its nature, method of rise to success, assistance given, competition and talent.
Success – are we talking about fame and riches provided in an industry that feeds off fame itself, for which the Kardashians are the dictionary definition? Are we talking about supreme private wealth without fame – the theoretical privileged 'brat' son who walks into his father's investment bank, gets all the best accounts and 'earns' his millions by age thirty? Are we talking about the child of a genius engineer whose child follows in the family business and also excel? Are we talking about a school teacher whose parents pass away and leave their house in their will, the sale money from which can buy holidays, sensible investments or fast cars? Some of these will be seen as fair play. Others, you may see as a straight forward gift of kindness. Another, could be arrogance, entitlement and nepotism at its worst.
Method of a rise – is fame simply handed out on a plate? Is money injected so frivolously and liberally so that it's almost impossible to fail? Is advice, experience and guidance shown to allow a child to follow their own path from nothing to something in a tough environment?
Assistance – is the amount of support just good parenting and exposure to a world they otherwise might miss out on? It the support a springboard of an education and then 'sort yourself out from here!'? Are money, open doors and contacts thrust upon a youngster so that the donkey-work never has to be done from scratch?
Competition – is it hard to succeed in a particular field? Do you need a world-class skill or do you just need to turn up in order to fill whatever position it is? Are thousands clambering for the job or role, or is it so niche that it's just the child and 'that other one' going for it. If the latter, is it success at all? Is assistance actually needed given the competition?
Talent – the big one. Those familiar with my writing will notice the return of my passion for talent, ability and 'meritocracy'. If a person, child of a famous or wealthy parent or not, is good at it, what's the problem? Is it likely that the 'nurtured' upbringing or raw genetics are the cause for success and if so, is this unfair? Should we all fully 'reset' to zero at birth and fight our own battles alone? Should the non-existent talent of a child of a genius preclude them from attainment, if aided by their leg-up?
Once all of these questions are answered and assuming your viewpoint is free from a prejudice, a fine line can perhaps be weaved between the free-loading, coat-tailing nobody and the prodigy who fights for and wins the day regardless of his or her background, be it a help or hindrance.
A few important questions come to mind.
Why should a parent not do their best for their child? It is the fundamental basis of sexual reproduction, human nature, modern society, parenting and genetics that a parent will move mountains to improve the chances for their brood. How dare some stranger criticise a parent for spending their hard-won cash on educating their child in a way they see as superior to that offered to any taxpayer. How dare that stranger tell a family member in a free market economy what they can or cannot do for their children. Jealousy by those without-it-all toward those who have-it-all and want to pass it on?
Is it a curse to have a successful or famous parent? Rather like the stigma that can come from tokenism and quota-based positive discrimination, both of which I believe are counter-productive, it can hurt. Expectation. An assumption that if you 'make it', it's not you but your parent who made it happen. Whether you see this as a 'poor diddums' syndrome, the self-pity of the rich and comfortable, or a genuine problem for those with ambitions and in the shadow of a relative, is important.
The previous question brings us onto a critical factor and one of the underlying truisms that drives most of these emotions and arguments. Accident of birth. One person might be born without running water into a religiously strict family where flexibility and education are impossible. Another could appear in a world where every opportunity can be afforded and growing up with an open, inquiring mind is a primary aim for both parents. The result for a child with a similar outright potential will be pointedly different. They will live different lives and, exceptions removed, their fates are to an extent sealed.
Think about this for a moment. The probability of a person with the innate talent of say Einstein or Ridley Scott, titans in their fields for different reasons, being born into the family, location and with the life-path they ended up with is infinitesimally small. This goes for every single success story the world has ever seen. If they had been born into a peasant family in 14th century Spain, as a random example, we would never be aware of or miss the things they created. Imagine the infinite number of gifts that the world and our society has lost out on because the right genes and potential were born in a place and time that wasted them entirely. Where would the world be now with what they could offer?
Behind whether a teen idol on stage, reality TV star or science prodigy should be where they are is a result of the accident of their birth. Some got there without any help, some with the support but not the nepotism of family and contacts, and some purely because they are in the right place at the right time. Like it or loathe it, it's part of life and there is nothing anyone can do to change it.
Perhaps we might be able to judge in some cases if something is nepotism or talent, or a dirty, grey mixture of the two. But, is it ok? Is nepotism natural? Certainly, biologically yes. Should it be part of our nature, like murder and stealing, which tends to rear its head in times of lawlessness and that we need to expunge as a society? An inconvenient hand-me-down from our animal history that has no place in a fair, cultured world? Where should it stop if so? Should a parent deny their brood every single thing that every other child may not have access to? Of course not – the ultimate extrapolation of the principle is crazy and unworkable – it's like socialism or another extreme-left ideology if it were invented and defined by a machine with no context of reality.
When all questions are pondered and viewpoints born, we might start to agree on a logical but human framework of where nepotism, the sort that clogs up fair opportunity and egalitarianism, is condemned and shamed into ignominious extinction, and the right of a parent to do the best for their child is supported and applauded. As we have seen though, the line is wiggly and indistinct; the place you lay it defined greatly by your own upbringing, personal success and general perspective. Perhaps, even by your deeply-held frustrations and jealousies, be them small or large, that all people accumulate as they live.
When you see Max Verstappen line up on the Formula One grid at an age when most children will still be at school, do you shout at the screen, 'he's only there because his dad is a multimillionaire ex-F1 driver with every contact in the book!' or 'good on him! He has made the very best of his lot in life and clearly has the talent to make his dad proud and meet the exacting standards demanded'?
Does the debate around the fairness of inheritance of money, contacts and opportunities reflect on us, the debaters? Are views, whether for or against inheritance and privileged youths, so heavily entrenched by personal agendas and circumstances that they are simply a product of us, not those at the heart of the matter? Perhaps it's just the jealousy of the mediocre at talented families who produce star after star with gold-gilted lives. Perhaps it's justified raised-eyebrows at the unlikeliest of coincidences that keep the famous rich and the downtrodden talent where it is.
What about the future? The vast majority of public discussion globally on issues like this are played out on the larger social networks. Let's face it, 90% of the comment on there is about as embarrassing at it gets in terms of the bigotry, total lack of thought and impulsive comments to serve no purpose. However, along with the decent and considered views which accompany them, they create a massive source of opinion. The crazy outliers can be diluted by the moderates in the centre of the bell-curve and something of some use can be gleaned. Social media, with its tabloid-like structure which feeds off sensation, glamour and controversy in 140 characters, isn't a tool which will search selflessly for fairness and meritocracy. In time it will use mob-rule to shame those it disapproves of, perhaps including nepotists, into hiding or worse. At the moment, the networks and the people who populate them are far too volatile and easily swayed to extremes by emotionally strategic campaigns. Perhaps this can't be solved – after all, the networks aren't anything more or less than a mouthpiece for people – a wider slice of people than have ever before had a voice.
For me it boils down to one fundamental: hard work, talent and the respect they demand. I don't really care where or how someone is born. Accident of birth is a fact of life and a child cannot control whether they arrive into opportunity or close-minded status quo. What matters is what they do with it. A parent cannot reasonably be criticised for doing their best to make sure the 'odds are forever in the favour' of their progeny, and neither can that child. What is needed is for the public, and the audience, to bring this under some sort of common sense control – by voting with their feet and with their wallets. It cannot be left to run rampant because of the societal systems we have created for ourselves. Unchecked, someone like Robin Thicke, whose father was a US network TV actor, emerges from the woodwork to behave as a misogynist fool whose ego and sense of entitlement dwarfs both his talent and intellect. It's down to us to think and then act en masse in the various ways we have power to do.