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Why It Pays to Be Privileged 

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London School of Economics and Political Science

WRITING IN 1915, THE THEORIST MAX WEBER observed: “The fortunate man is seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune. He wants to be convinced that he “deserves” it, and above all, that he deserves it in comparison with others . . . good fortune thus wants to be legitimate fortune.”


Weber could easily have been writing about today. Fast forward 100 years and the current political fetish for social mobility and meritocracy is clearly motivated by a similar societal yearning for legitimate fortune”. In fact this still represents the key rhetorical tool for most politicians when seeking to justify current, mushrooming, rates of inequality. The rocketing incomes enjoyed by top earners since the 1980s, we often hear, is perfectly acceptable as long as those from all class backgrounds have fair access to the jobs that generate such disproportionate rewards. Social mobility, in other words, imbues inequality with a kind of meritocratic legitimacy.


But is getting ahead really just a matter of merit; of “legitimate fortune”? Well, having spent the last 5 years researching who gets in and who gets on in Britain’s elite occupations, our answer is a resounding no. Only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds (meaning those whose breadwinning parent did routine” or “semi-routine” work, or didn’t work) make it into Britain’s higher managerial, professional or cultural occupations – according to our analysis of over 100,000 people in the ONS Labour Force Survey.


And access is particularly restricted in areas like medicine, law and journalism. Only 6% of doctors, for example, are from working-class backgrounds. In the workforce as a whole the figure is 33%. Some of this can be explained by the advantages enjoyed by those who follow directly in their parents footsteps. If you have a parent who is a doctor you are a somewhat staggering 24 times more likely to become a doctor. Similarly, the children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to go into law and the children of those in film and television 12 times more likely to go into these fields.


Yet it is important we don’t just fixate on this issue of access. Most academics, policymakers, charities and businesses have tended to make this mistake in the past, implicitly suggesting that the baggage of our class origins somehow disappears once we enter the workplace. We wanted to shift the debate—from getting in to getting on. And what we found was striking. In contemporary Britain it quite literally pays to be privileged.

Even when those from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering the country’s elite occupations, they go on to earn, on average, £6400 ($8000) less than colleagues whose parents did “middle-class” professional or managerial jobs. This class pay gap is exacerbated for women, people with disabilities, and most ethnic minorities. Each face a distinct double disadvantage. Women from working-class backgrounds, for example, earn on average £19000 ($23,500) a year less in elite occupations than men from privileged backgrounds, and the figure is even higher for Black-British or Indian women.


These figures are certainly concerning. But it is important not to simply jump to the conclusion that that they are driven by discrimination. In fact, many readers have probably already started formulating their own explanations for the class pay gap; maybe the privileged have higher rates of educational attainment? Maybe they just work harder, or perform better at work?


These are plausible mechanisms that deserve careful scrutiny. And some are indeed part of the story. Education, for example, does explain some of the gap. Those from privileged backgrounds tend to have higher qualifications and attend more prestigious universities, both of which are associated with higher earnings. Yet significantly even when we adjust for education, along with a range of conventional indicators of merit, such as hours worked, training and experience, still half the class pay gap remains. This is worth underlining; even when those from working-class backgrounds are similar to their advantaged colleagues in every way we can measure they still earn significantly less.


The question this raises, of course, is why? To get at this we quickly realized we needed to go beyond survey data. So we brokered access to a number of elite firms, conducting 175 interviews at a large multinational accountancy firm, a successful architecture practice, one of Britain’s biggest television broadcasters, and with self-employed actors.


The Invisible Hand (Up)


People tend to presume that career progression rests solely on the labor of individuals. Yet our interviews revealed that people rarely progress in elite occupations based only on their own efforts. Instead very often when our interviewees narrated decisive moments in their careers—key decisions, new jobs, big promotions—there were others in their stories who provided a pivotal hand up.


First, we consistently saw the profound advantages afforded to those who can draw upon “The Bank of Mum and Dad”. This kind of financial patronage, we argue, is pivotal in propelling careers forward, particularly in precarious areas like the cultural industries. Here money acts as an important early-career lubricant, allowing the privileged to maneuver into more promising career tracks, resist exploitative employment and take risky opportunities—all of which increase their chances of long-term success. In contrast, those who lack the insulation of family money described the day-to-day of making a living in these areas a kind of economic chaos, or as one actor put it, “like skydiving without a parachute”.


Yet a helping hand does not always push from below. In many elite occupations support is more likely to come from above. And instead of economic it is often social—in the form of sponsorship. This process is simple; a senior leader identifies a junior protégé and then, often operating beneath formal processes, is able to fast-track their career by brokering job opportunities, allocating valuable work, or advocating on their behalf. And while this was often presented as innocent talent spotting, we found that sponsor relationships were rarely established on the basis of work performance. Instead, they were almost always forged, in the first instance, through a sense of class-cultural affinity—shared humor, taste or lifestyle.


The Performance of “Merit”


Merit is not only assumed to be the sole property of individuals. It is also thought to have a fixed nature – conventional indicators are widely considered objectively measurable and equally recognized by all. But a key theme running through our research is that merit has to be continually demonstrated in the workplace, and others—especially senior decision-makers—have to be persuaded of its value. And the key point here is that supposedly objective measures of merit are often actually received, assessed and valued very differently according to how they are performed. Some performances “fit’, in other words, and others do not.


To understand fit, it is first important to understand the dominant behavioral codes that prevail in elite occupations. These are rooted in the history of these occupations, in what type of people have done this work in the past and how, over time, they have been successful in embedding their own ideas about the “right” way to be at work. In accountancy, for example, and particularly in spaces like The City (of London), the historical residue of an overwhelmingly privileged (white, male) majority is an enduring emphasis on corporate “polish” – encompassing formal dress and etiquette, interactional poise, and an aura of gravitas. This, of course, is not assessed in any formal way but instead discerned via an instinctive gut feeling, an intuitive sense, as one senior accountant put it, that some simply “feel like a partner”.


The point here is that although those at the top valued these codes, most others admitted in anonymous interviews that they had little connection to the actual work being carried out. And this matters, we argue, because it illustrates how the self-presentational baggage of a privileged class origin is frequently misrecognized in elite occupations as a marker of a person’s talent, ability or potential.  


Prevailing Winds


Mark had one of the most coveted jobs in television. As a senior commissioner at one of Britain’s biggest broadcasters, he controlled a budget extending to the millions. Yet when we met Mark, and invited him to narrate his career in his own words, an unusual account emerged. It is not that he disavowed his success; he was clearly proud of what he had achieved. But what was striking was Mark’s acknowledgment that his upward trajectory, particularly its rapid speed and relative smoothness, has been contingent on “starting the race” with a series of profound advantages. He was certainly from a privileged background. His parents were both successful professionals and he was educated at one of London’s top private schools before going on to Oxford.


“It is not like I think I am rubbish,” he said towards the end of our interview. “I’ve seen lots of peers with greater networks and privilege screw up because they just weren’t good enough. But at the same time, it is mad to pretend there’s not been an incredibly strong following wind throughout my career.”


This idea of a “following wind’, a gust of privilege, gets to the heart of what we call the class ceiling. It neatly captures the propulsive power provided by an advantaged class background—how it acts as an energy-saving device that allows some to get further with less effort—deftly shaping career trajectories, delineating what courses of action are possible, what kind of support is available, and how one’s “merits” are perceived by others. Equally, the metaphor also describes the experience of the upwardly mobile who, very often, have the wind against them. It is not that such individuals cannot move forward, or never reach the top; just that, generally, it takes longer, happens less frequently and often represents a markedly more labor-intensive, even exhausting experience.

Sam Friedman will speak at the Reverberations of Inequality Opening Conference, Panel 2: Barriers to Mobility, September 20, 11:00 am-12:40 pm, 3501 Sansom Street. Click here to register.

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