Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Old Boy Network in action

This week brought an interesting coincidence; just as I was pondering the end of my fifth decade and considering what I had - or had not - achieved so far, an e-mail arrived from my alma mater.

On leaving school, by a set of curious chances, I found myself in the hallowed halls of an ancient and prestigious seat of learning. In this august environment, I embarked on an unexceptional academic career and thence to a vocation-led commitment to the chalkface, well away from any public forum.

If I were less contented with this obscurity, I might feel a certain envy when the annual college magazine announces that yet another member of my cohort has taken silk, been elected to Parliament or achieved high status in the world of banking, journalism or the BBC. While I have been enjoying a quiet and uneventful existence, my former fellow-students have, it seems, permeated virtually every aspect of British public life.

That being so, I invite you to consider the circular e-mail I received this week, bearing in mind that its content is addressed to former members of a single Oxbridge college, an enclave within the wider University.

It begins innocently enough, with an invitation to join a new alumni network with four aims; firstly to 'Reconnect':
Find and reminisce with fellow graduates, see what they have been up to and stay in touch.
So far so good, though I can't say I'm exactly tempted; I am so far removed from my 20-year-old self as to be virtually another species and I have no desire to meet anyone who knew me back then. In any case, I doubt I would find anything to match the wealth of experience, expertise, humour, creativity and warmth that exists in the blogs listed on the left.

Next comes 'Give Back':
Introduce, employ and offer to act as a mentor to our graduating students.
Altruism, yes, but also a leg up for the boys (and girls) in the career market, a hint of what is to come next under the heading 'Expand':
Leverage your professional network to get introduced to people you should know.
I'm not sure what that actually means, but, under the management-speak, it certainly sounds remarkably like the Old Boy Network, at least in the context of uniting graduates of the same college online. I'm reminded of a fellow-student who switched place cards at a formal dinner to put himself next to the Master on High Table - now there's someone I really don't want to 'find and reminisce with'.

 Finally, there's 'Advance':
Advance your career through inside connections working in top companies.
And that, in a nutshell, is what everyone who didn't attend this college or one like it is up against in the search for jobs and promotion, at least in circles where such a background is seen as desirable - and this, remember, is before networking on a University level kicks in.

Many of those invited to join the college network can be found in the higher echelons of industry, banking, medicine, government, the media and countless other branches of the Establishment where, if this e-mail achieves its purpose, they will doubtless be joined by others simply by virtue of having passed through the same medieval gates.


  1. I can't knock it really, it opened doors for me in some situations but not in others. My acceptance at an "independent schools" training institution was very much down to it and some jobs along the way.

    Should it be so? No on one level, that of equality of opportunity but if you look at an employer who in those days wanted at least a reasonably educated, articulate and numerate person on the staff - I can see his point of view too.

    Too long out of it now, I'm not sure how it works these days. Or doesn't.

  2. Did they ask you for money too?

    Communications from my old college usually do. In fact they sometimes phone me up, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ask if I'd be willing to "help" some current undergraduate(s). (I pretend to be unemployed, that usually stops them in their tracks.)

    Can't see much harm in the introductions though, really; doesn't everyone make use of their contacts?

    Try getting into the bbc without any - you can forget it: at the very best you'll spend years on short-term temporary contracts. At the best.

  3. You must admit, you get a better class of begging letter.

  4. I'm sure the main function of the old boy network is to harvest and nurture predictable behaviour, a basic neurological drive and source of social stability. Merit is good but not essential. Predictable is essential.

    We probably shouldn't knock it because however unfair and inefficient it may be, it does contribute towards social stability. Often too much stability, but the alternative isn't attractive either.

  5. Thanks, all, for the comments.

    I suppose it all depends whether you are in the scrum trying to get a foot on the bottom of the ladder or standing back, knowing that someone upstairs will lower you a rope.

    The old boy network once offered a way to vouch for potential employees through personal acquaintance; I'm not so sure that works with the internet. In any case, there's something about the whole 'leverage' and 'advance' phraseology that makes me uneasy, as does the idea of using behind-the-scenes 'inside contacts' made online - which probably means I was right to opt out of the rat race.

    The begging letters and calls have abated since I told the caller I was supporting my own children through university and had no cash to spare for anyone else's.

    It's somewhat odd to be asked for cash by one of the richest establishments of its kind in the country - a bit like the Beggar Queen Molly in Pratchett's 'Men At Arms':
    "You couldn't spare I ten thousand dollars for a small mansion, could you?"

  6. The solution might be to get to this platinum asteroid about to pass earth and prise some rock from that. Money issue sorted.

  7. An interesting idea, JH - the ------ College asteroid mining venture; they should have the know-how, if anyone does.