Review: The Class Ceiling

The Class Ceiling 
Why it Pays to be Privileged

Sam Friedman
Daniel Laurison

Published by Policy Press, 2020
ISBN 9781447336068

Class may be the ultimate English taboo. Not long ago, the Labour Government minister John Prescott’s television documentary[1]‘Prescott: The Class System And Me’ (2008). UK: BBC 2. portrayed the UK as a country in which the very word was losing meaning in ways that should have troubled sociologists. In a memorable scene, Prescott interviewed a group of young unemployed people who refused to see themselves as ‘working class’ because, well, they did not work for a living. More recently, the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities [2]Sewell, T. et al. (2021) Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report. was widely condemned in part for suggesting that a class-centric, socioeconomic lens may be appropriate in addressing disadvantages experienced by ethnic minorities.

The Class Ceiling is one of a range of works to appear in recent years that attempt to renew the focus on class and its continued hold on the uneven distributions of social and cultural capital in sites of economic and political power. Titles like the theoretically-driven Against Meritocracy,[3]Littler, J. (2017) Against Meritocracy: Culture, power and myths of mobility. Taylor & Francis. the politically-sited The Tyranny of Merit,[4]Sandel, M. J. (2020) The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books Limited. and the historical and activist Snakes and Ladders[5]Todd, S. (2021) Snakes and Ladders: The great British social mobility myth. Random House. all serve to undo the naively optimistic narratives of merit as the prevalent organising principle of society and labour that have characterised much of the past decades. 

Friedman and Laurison’s study centres on the material outcomes and professional experiences of individuals engaged in elite professions in relation to their class origins to test the promise of meritocracy that it’s not who, but what you know that matters. As it is not only equality of opportunity but also the chances of equal outcomes that are under investigation, the book’s key questions are ones of social mobility: how likely is it that an individual beginning their life in working-class or intermediate class circumstances may end up in occupations that make them a prosperous member of the professional or managerial classes? 

The book opens with the story of Mark, a successful TV executive who attributes his stellar ascent in the industry equally to hard work and his quintessentially privileged background (professional-class parents, private schooling and Oxford, networks built on family connections, etc.). Mark is the archetype against whom all the other protagonists in the book must compete: his stocks of social, economic, and cultural capitals are high. Even in the scantest analysis, the odds are heavily stacked against individuals of working-class origin who are almost half as likely to end up in working-class occupations as to transcend class boundaries into intermediate, managerial, or elite professions. This framing illustrates the authors’ fundamental belief that social mobility is the key route to economic emancipation (Friedman is a member of the Government’s Social Mobility Commission) which favours ascent towards the top of the labour market pyramid.

The authors select the occupation of an individual’s parents as a proxy for their class origin. Consequently, the detailed work draws on extensive analysis of data from the Labour Force Survey as it pertains to individuals employed in a range of elite professions (medicine, academia, law, senior corporate management, and finance, among others). This quantitative work is accompanied by analysis of 175 interviews with individuals working in the prestigious fields of television, accounting, architecture, and the acting profession presented in the book as a series of vignettes and case studies.

The Class Ceiling builds on the tools of its glass predecessor in defining a range of mechanisms by which discrimination operates. In the professional milieux which Friedman and Laurison describe, class disparities are already visible at the entry-level: that the children of doctors are 25 times more likely to take up medicine than any other profession means that they dominate the competitive field from the get-go. Education is not the ‘great leveller’ either: “those from working class backgrounds earn even less when they go to top universities” (p. 63). These predictions hold across many co-variables including sex, disability, or ethnicity, although Friedman and Laurison’s multidimensional observations show that in most matters, demographic differences alone do not explain observed disparities. The book thus makes a case for adding class origins as a key dimension of intersectional analysis.

The headline finding that working-class origin people earn on average £6400 (or 16%) less per year than their colleagues from privileged backgrounds in the same occupations is a depressing starting point, but one that should put an end to any belief in the meritocracy of the UK’s job marketplace. The statistical analysis is detailed enough to present some counterintuitive findings, however. While, for example, “socially mobile women face double discrimination on earnings” in elite industries overall (p. 50) and women are overrepresented in journalism (p. 42), working-class individuals overall enjoy an earrings advantage in that industry (p. 51). In a section of the book filled with indictments of prevalent attitudes to class, a discussion of whether and why journalism may be a haven for working-class women would have been welcome.

The book takes flight in the later chapters which take to task a range of phenomena that the authors observed in corporate settings. We meet the job applicant Martin, who is as qualified as his competitor Sophie but is of working-class origin and therefore not a good ‘fit’. We hear from executives who suggest that career progression is a matter of ‘confidence’. When Friedman and Laurison explore the qualities behind those terms, it becomes clear that they are intended to reinforce barriers while rendering them opaque. Head of department Nigel may suggest that in his organisation “you can be who you want to be”, but in the very same setting, success hinges on choosing the correct brand of trainers for Martha (p. 134). There is an element of chicken-and-egg in these accounts that mirrors the homophilic in- and out-group sorting mechanisms of all groups and therefore the interviews and case studies are particularly valuable. 

The authors’ siting of the research in elite professions is productive because it allows for a discussion of both the disadvantages faced by working- and intermediate class origin individuals and the privileges enjoyed by their professional class origin counterparts. There are, however, limitations to this approach which Friedman and Laurison acknowledge: this analysis tells us little about how the ‘long shadow’ of class origin operates elsewhere. A way of generalising the observation that it is the class origin that prevents working-class individuals from prospering in elite professions would be to deconstruct the understanding of employment in those elite occupations as universally synonymous with belonging to a professional class. 

While The Class Ceiling provides evidence that working-class origin individuals don’t often progress beyond the lowest paying employment on entering elite industries, further insight could be gained from a longitudinal analysis of the rise of those industries in the decades of mass deregulation. The thematically linked Culture is Bad for You, for example, demonstrates that in elite cultural occupations, the golden age of social mobility is at best a myth[6]Brook, O., O’Brien, D. and Taylor, M. (2020) Culture is bad for you: Inequality in the cultural and creative industries. chap. 7. Manchester University Press. and that the statistically evident gains of the class politics of the 1980s may have been the result of a shift in terminology and not in outcomes. An analysis of class barriers in evidence today, perhaps, should take account of the stark class-type differences between the CEOs and the administrators who both appear in the data trails as belonging to the same professional class. 

Ultimately, the scholarly value of the work lies in its rehabilitation of the multiple measures and meanings of class as distinct constituent components in an intersectional analysis of any group’s professional or social outcomes. Friedman and Laurison’s quantitative work is certainly impressive in its multidimensionality and its investment in critical and numerical complexity. The relationship of this data with the qualitative aspects of the research, however, may be far from stable: the oral accounts of class on which the work is based do not always match the statistical classifications. This poses a challenge to the project because how class is measured and how it is understood are not one and the same.

That the understanding and signalling of class or other identity attributes may become an obstacle to classical class analysis is already evident from Friedman and Laurison’s data in a subsequent paper Deflecting Privilege[7]Friedman, S., O’Brien, D. and McDonald, I. (2021) ‘Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self’, Sociology. doi: 10.1177/0038038520982225. that observes a range of middle-class origin individuals constructing accounts of class adversity and disadvantage. This phenomenon even predates the 1980s’ spirit of individualism heralded by Giddens or Bauman: the pioneering American artist Lorraine O’Grady, for example, recalls her successful Black middle-class peers feigning humble origins in the 1970s.[8]O’Grady, L. and Davis, B. (2021) ‘Lorraine O’Grady on the Social Castes of the Art World’, The Art Angle. … Continue reading To echo her question: “what kind of class does that?”

How such considerations can be politically activated to form a convincing policy framework for ameliorating prevailing disparities remains an open question. For some, the classic Bourdieusian tools of sociology are beginning to fray in the era of identity politics and its intersectional demands[9]Heinich, N. (2007) Pourquoi Bourdieu? Gallimard (Le Débat). – the Sewell report comes to mind again. Slavoj Žižek[10]Žižek, S. (2016) What the Liberal Left Doesn’t Want to Hear. New York. has suggested that the same kind of deconstruction awaits class as is currently taking place with the gender binary. An entirely different political class narrative may be called for that transcends the boundaries of sociological understanding before returning to the discipline once again.

This is an Accepted Manuscript version of the following article, accepted for publication in Cultural Trends:
d’Alancaisez, P. (2021) ‘The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged’, Cultural Trends, pp. 1–3. doi: 10.1080/09548963.2021.1950512