The Class Ceiling review – why it pays to be privileged

What affects whether you get promoted? Not just your ability, argue sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison

The review below is quite a perceptive account of the skills needed to fit in with the people at the top of British society.  More than a formal education is needed.  Lots of small stuff has to be known too. Most of the people concerned learned it at their "public" schools but if you did not go to one of those you just have to grit your teeth and learn it all if you really want to fit in.

It can be done but it may not be easy.  You really may need to know who G.W.F. Hegel was -- to quote the example below.  I did during my time in England and I experienced no social barriers.  And above all, you have to acquire an acceptable accent.

Something only hinted at below but which is of first-rate importance is self-confidence. The public schools do a remarkable job  of instilling self-confidence into their pupils so you need to have that too.  I did and do.

What the authors below wrongly deny is the role of ability. Ability may in fact be everything, even if education is not. Top people are generally bright -- so class manners and customs are largely the manners and customs that come naturally to high IQ people.  A lot of the class behavior is just high IQ behaviour.  So ability is much more important than it seems. If you are naturally in the high IQ category, the "right" reflexes and responses will largely come to you with little or no effort.  You will not have to grit your teeth at all to learn what you need to know.

That may all be deplorable but it is how the world is and there in no likelihood of it changing

Social mobility is not a myth, but meritocracy is a sham. It is possible, though difficult, to come from a working-class background and enter the elite professions, but, as sociologists Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison point out in this innovative study, you will find it harder to progress and you’ll earn less money, even when you have the same degree from the same university as someone with more privileged beginnings. On average, in fact, you’ll earn £7,000 a year less.

If you’re a black British woman with working-class origins, the “class pay gap” for those working in top jobs is an astonishing £20,000. If you’re a white upper middle-class man, the path to the top is as smooth as ever. But how does this happen? To adopt a phrase from Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist to whom the authors’ work is indebted – how does “social reproduction” at the top occur?

This is the first book to combine an analysis of earnings data from the large-scale Labour Force Survey with many of the findings from the Great British Class Survey, an online questionnaire hosted on the BBC website in 2011. Friedman and Laurison met while working on the latter survey. Both became convinced that objective data alone could not get to the bottom of why vast pay gaps persist between people of differing social positions, even when they are doing similar jobs.

In the case of the creative industries, being told that their employment practices are classist, racist and sexist would irritate and anger most senior staff, even when they implicitly accept the reality. Take their case study of one of the major TV companies, which they disguise as “6TV”, who, in the words of one self-employed – and underemployed – working-class actor, are “all these middle-class people making … working-class programme[s]”.

The creative industries’ diversity problem is obvious from the outset. It is partly about behaviour, an easy switch between the demotic and more rarefied. Senior commissioners at 6TV can put their boxfresh trainers up on the desk and swear freely, but only because they know how to do it at the right time and in the “right” context.

Friedman and Laurison’s interviews illustrate the power of “studied informality” – essentially the way in which working class ways of being have been ruthlessly appropriated by the upper middle-class as a way to make money and cachet from authenticity. 6TV’s commissioners pride themselves on programming that connects with “real people”, living “real lives” in ‘real places’. At the company’s gladiatorial commissioning meetings, where programme ideas get thrashed out, the most coveted skill is a kind of highbrow banter. You can proclaim, as one commissioner does, that “We’re talking about TV … it’s not Hegel!”, but you still have to know who Hegel is and to know how to get a laugh out of bringing up his name.

In other words, the authors highlight the multiplying effects of factors that privilege the already privileged. It’s not just that having rich parents makes your upbringing well resourced, which in turn makes you less risk-averse, secure in the knowledge that you have money to fall back on. It means being used to dinner settings with more than one fork. It means going to schools where the stock in trade is the cultivation not of passionate argument but of dispassionate debating skills – because none of it really matters, does it Boris? Wordplay, wit, highbrow references, and above all, the display of lightly worn intelligence deployed to raise a knowing chuckle, are the real currency of the professional elite.

Friedman and Laurison end their study with 10 suggestions for elite employers wishing to make their workplaces more representative of the society we live in. Perhaps the most significant of the 10 is the authors’ instruction to do away with the practice of senior staff informally identifying “favourites” and selecting them for promotion, as this tends to lend weight to interpersonal skills – would you go skiing with him or her? – over professional competency.

Reading The Class Ceiling hit home in so many places I felt bruised by the end. As the authors note in their conclusion, social mobility hurts, to the extent that it can sometimes feel that it outweighs the (hard-won) benefits. Earning less money than your more privileged colleagues, when you arguably need it more than they do, is only the final insult. In the words of the writer Annette Kuhn, quoted here, “class is something beneath your clothes, under your skin, in your reflexes, your psyche, at the very core of your being”. [In other words, it is high IQ]


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