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  • The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison
  • Jessica McCrory Calarco
The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged
By Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison
Policy Press, 2019. 384 pages.

In The Class Ceiling, authors Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison deftly dismantle popular (and often highly politicized) myths about inequality and meritocracy in the UK. First, and using nationally representative data from Britain's Labour Force Survey (LFS), the authors highlight class-based gaps in access to elite professions and class-based pay gaps within those professions, as well. The remainder of the book is aimed at explaining those patterns and especially the class-based gaps in pay. Combining quantitative data with in-depth, qualitative interviews with 175 workers in four elite occupational fields, the authors find that neither merit nor character sufficiently explains class-based inequalities within those fields. Instead, the authors find that those inequalities are produced by the "class ceiling"—an invisible economic, social, and cultural barrier that limits the career advancement of elite workers from working-class backgrounds.

Friedman and Laurison argue that, by focusing on intergenerational movement between "big classes," most quantitative research on social mobility makes it impossible to tell which elite jobs are most open or most closed to workers from working-class backgrounds. Thus, in an effort to determine "where the action is," the authors first turn to data from the 2013-2016 LFS. The 108,000-respondent, nationally representative dataset includes 18,000 workers in "elite" occupations. Those occupations include "higher professional managerial occupations" (e.g., doctor, lawyer, accountant, engineer, architect, and corporate manager) and "creative" occupations with a high level of competitiveness, desirability, and social influence (e.g., film and television production, acting, and advertising). The authors find that elite occupations are dominated by workers from privileged (i.e., upper-middle-class) families and that those inequalities cannot be explained by "merit" alone. Rather, even when holding constant educational attainment, educational pedigree (i.e., having attended elite schools), and educational achievement, people from working-class backgrounds are still less likely than people from more privileged backgrounds to have elite occupations. Those class-based barriers to entry are especially high for women, people with disabilities, and people who are Black, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi. Those class-based barriers to entry are also stronger in some elite occupations (e.g., medicine, law, and journalism) than in others (e.g., engineering, management, accountancy, and IT).

This first part of the analysis provides clear evidence of class-based (and intersectional) inequalities in access to elite occupations, but the authors do not stop there. Rather, and combining insights from research on "cultural matching" in elite hiring with research on the "glass ceiling" and gender gaps in pay, Friedman and Laurison show how classed notions of "merit" and "fit" create a "class ceiling" that limits the career advancement and incomes of those 10 percent of working-class-origin workers who do find jobs in elite fields.

To reveal the "class ceiling" in elite occupations, the authors use LFS data to highlight class-based pay gaps in elite occupations. They find that, in elite occupations, people from working-class origins earn 16 percent less than do people from more privileged backgrounds and that those class-based gaps are multiplied for women and for Black, Bangladeshi, and Pakistani workers. Women from working-class backgrounds earn on average £7,500 less than women from privileged class backgrounds, and £19,000 less than men from privileged class backgrounds. That gap is even larger (£20,000) when comparing Black British women from working-class backgrounds to White British men from privileged class backgrounds. These pay gaps, however, are not consistent across elite fields. Rather, they are much larger in "professional" and "business" fields, including law, medicine, and finance, and nearly nonexistent in some "technical" fields, including engineering and architecture.

To explain the "class ceiling" in elite occupations, the authors combine analyses of the LFS with case studies of workers in four fields that have larger (accountancy and acting) and smaller (broadcast television and architecture) class-based gaps in pay. With their quantitative data, the...


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