This weekend, I watched 49-UP, the most recent in Michael Apted’s series of movies about the lives of a group of people who were first interviewed as 7 year old schoolchildren in Britain and have been reinterviewed every 7 years since.

Interestingly, Tony, who grew up in working class poverty and now appears to be solidly middle class (with a second home in Spain), expresses what I would consider the most "conservative" views about the appropriate role of government in society, saying essentially "I made it, why can’t they?"  Upper-class John, who always seemed quite the snob and is now a Queen’s Counsel, describes Tony Blair as a "conservative" and says that his concerns about the government are about the attacks on due process.  And upper class Andrew points out, as I did previously, that you can’t imagine any 7 year old today being able to confidently (and accurately) predict where he was going to go to university, the way they did now.

But overall, the whole question of class seems to have faded in importance.  The time-lapse aspect of the show — watching the same people at 7 and 21 and 49 — is just overwhelming.  (Among other things, it makes me want to grab the video camera and ask my kids what they want to be when they grow up and if they want to marry and where they want to live.)  It helps me imagine the next decades of my life far more vividly than anything else I’ve seen or read.

It’s also far more of a positive picture of middle age than is generally provided.  Those who are married (either still married or remarried) seem genuinely happy with their spouses, not just partnering off because it’s expected.  And those who are single mostly seem to have made their peace with that.  Suzy, who was so awkward as a teen and then seemed to disappear into the role of mother, finally seems to be comfortable in her own skin.  Nick’s research has hit a dead end, but he clearly loves teaching.  Bruce has compromised his ideals somewhat, but also thrives on teaching.  Lynn starts crying at the prospect of being pushed out from her job as children’s librarian.  Andrew has made a late-in-life career change.  Jackie challenges the picture of her from 42-Up as being overwhelmed by her physical limitations.

And Neil.  Neil, who was so bright and lively as a child, who wound up homeless and questioning his own sanity, has found a niche as a small town politician.  I can’t help but thinking that he’s a walking advertisement for the welfare state, since I have little doubt that he’d be homeless and addicted in the United States, if not dead.

If you’ve got the time, I recommend watching the whole series from the start. But if you don’t, there’s enough clips from the earlier shows to provide some context.  It’s worth watching.

8 Responses to “49-UP”

  1. Rachel Says:

    Thanks for the review. I read an interview with the filmmaker and I’ve been dying to see the movies. I think it’s pretty common for someone who overcomes poverty to have the “I did it, so why can’t they?” attitude. My parents, both of whom climbed up from extreme poverty to the middle class, are quite conservative.

  2. trishka Says:

    great review, elizabeth! i just watched this last weekend as well.
    i agree with what you said, but was i think affected most by seeing john, aka “upper class twit of the year” so devoted to his charity work.
    it’s such a good reminder about judging people, and how real live human beings are so much more complex than the 1-dimensional black & white fictional versions we are so accustomed to seeing presented to us in the media and elsewhere.

  3. Jennifer Says:

    I really enjoyed this when I saw it a few months ago, too. I’m not sure I agree that class has faded into the background in their lives – it certainly has in the movie, but it really depends what you focus on.
    The lesson for me is that happiness does depend on personal connection, and class has little to do with your success in establishing that.
    It’s a fascinating project, and I find myself refecting on my own life every time I see it.

  4. amy Says:

    my understanding’s that the importance of class in general in Britain has faded considerably. =) Which might mean that John and Andrew are just more socially adept in the matter than anything else.
    As always, too, makes sense for the insecurely middle-class to be most conservative. They’ve (we’ve) got the most to lose, the least cushion against it, and a keen awareness of the sea of hands happy to pick them bare.

  5. bj Says:

    My parents, who also climbed up from extreme poverty to the middle class, are not at all conservative. I do think that the insecurity of one’s place in the middle class (rather than merely your orgins plays a role there).
    I thinnk the documentary series is fabulously fascinating, but had to stop watching it when I started finding it just too emotionally distressing. I think the film’s director is skewing our perceptions, but it was Neil’s story, and the comparison with the child that I found so troubling.
    Has anyone seen the Australian show that follows a few young women from the outback? Much more distressing, but also interesting.

  6. Lindsay Beyerstein Says:

    Maybe the average American seven-year-old can’t predict where they’re going to university, but the relationship between class and college becomes clearer in North America every year. Last September, I heard a woman sobbing in the supermarket on her cellphone because her kid hadn’t gotten into the right kindergarten. Granted, I live in a rapidly gentrifying part of Brooklyn, but I was shocked that anyone would cry in public about their kid not getting into the “right” friggin’ nursing school, let alone that she would tell her interlocutor that the kid was forever doomed (in all apparent seriousness).
    I bet 80% of kids who will eventually attend an Ivy league school would predict that outcome by the age of 12.

  7. amy Says:

    Next time you should gently tap the woman on the shoulder and let her know — gently, of course — that there are children in Iowa and Nebraska who go to Ivies, and we don’t even have kindergarten here.
    Well, OK, we do. But don’t let on about how the Harvard slots are reserved for the geographically underprivileged.

  8. Elizabeth Says:

    I like that response, Amy.
    Lindsay, I agree with your broad point about the connection between class and educational opportunity in this country — and have made such points many times here. But precisely the reason that woman in the supermarket was freaking out is that there really aren’t enough spots in the Ivies for all the kids of investment bankers and lawyers in New York. So some of them are going to be left out. And that woman is terrified that her child is going to be the one.
    The bigger picture that she’s missing is that a) the odds are very strong that her child will do just fine economically even if he attends a slightly less brand-name university and b) she’s f*cking her child up emotionally in the process.
    I grew up in NYC and my parents were pretty well off (not superrich — my dad is a professor, not a stockbroker), and I wound up going to an Ivy, but I couldn’t have predicted that at 12. What I could have told you was a) that I was going to college and b) I didn’t have to constrain my choice of schools because of finances. That’s a heck of a lot of privilege, but it’s qualitatively different from being able to say “I’m going to go to such and such college, Cambridge.”

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