In his new book, The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to Be Privileged, Assistant Professor of Sociology Daniel Laurison '99 investigates the ambiguities of meritocracy in white-collar workers’ salaries in the United Kingdom.
“The people we interviewed in many cases believed if they worked hard that they could get ahead,” says Laurison, “but meritocracy is often used to legitimize social inequalities, and people from working-class backgrounds continue to face barriers.”
Co-authored with Sam Friedman of the London School of Economics, The Class Ceiling was published in the U.K. in late January, to rave reviews, including a feature article in The Guardian. It will be released by the University of Chicago Press in the U.S. in March.
Though people of color and white women are usually the most-often referenced as those who struggle to shatter the glass ceiling, people from poor and working-class backgrounds face similar roadblocks to their success in the workplace.
“There are cultural barriers and unspoken or explicit norms about what people ought to know,” says Laurison, who also studies political campaigns and class inequalities in political participation. “We talked with people from working-class backgrounds, and they said they often felt out of place and that they tried hard to fake it to fit in.”
For this book, Laurison and Friedman interviewed employees in highly competitive roles, including accountants, architects, actors, and television producers. “On average, people from working-class backgrounds earn about 16 percent less than those from privileged backgrounds,” Laurison says.
The “creative breakfast,” where staff gather to make important decisions about which shows will go forward, was one example given from those in the television industry. “In these events it’s important to be right, but more important to be witty,” says Laurison.
Those interviewed said that if the employees gathered did not attend the same elite schools as those in the company’s positions of power, their ability to engage on equal footing conversationally set them apart. “There is a judgment,” says Laurison. “We need to address the issue of facilitating class mobility; the question is: How do you figure out the actual skills, talents, and capacities of employees?”
It is especially difficult to break into fields such as law, medicine, and finance, the authors say; these fields draw almost exclusively from upper-middle-class job candidates. And when—and if—a candidate with a working-class background is selected for the job, they usually still end up earning less than their well-heeled peers.