Just Not Posh Enough? Social Mobility and the “Class Ceiling”

This autumn marks twenty-five years since I went to college at Durham University in the North-East of England. Durham is the third oldest university in England, and one of its colleges is housed in the Norman castle on top of a hill. It’s a beautiful place in which to learn, and, because of its history and atmosphere, it is a popular destination for elite schooled teenagers who have failed to get in to either Oxford or Cambridge. When I was there, the ratio of kids from fee-paying as opposed to state schools was something like two to one, though it felt even higher. Through the three years I studied there as an undergraduate I became increasingly aware of how class worked, not only through my studies but by observing class at work day in day out. From my first day, I saw privileged kids ferried by their parents along the narrow medieval streets in large new cars and then mix effortlessly at welcome events through a mixture of charm and pre-forged social networks between their former schools. This engrained privilege and sense of entitlement developed through their college days – the officer training events they attended, debating societies, and the exciting holidays they enjoyed during vacation times (I spent mine working ten hours a day in a tin big box store on the retail park outside my hometown selling washing machines). The finishing touch, however, came when blue-chip legal, accountancy and financial services companies arrived for the annual ‘milk round’ employment fair and hoovered up the elite students to go and work in the City of London.

I was reminded of my time in Durham the other day by a report published by the UK Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission on the way social class prevents working-class, and increasingly even many lower middle-class kids from joining such blue-chip firms. The report sparked the usual round of quick and dirty stories in the UK media, such as one in the Guardian under the strapline ‘How to pass the posh test: ‘Do you know Marmaduke Von Snittlebert?’. Laughing at the upper classes has its place – I had many opportunities to do this at college – but the hundred or so pages of the report offer some important insights into class privilege and how it has been firming-up rather than being broken-down over the last quarter-century. The report uses the term the ‘class ceiling’, borrowed from two young sociologists at the London School of Economics, to describe how class elites are tightening their grip on the best jobs and how, in spite of the best efforts of some recruiters, class continues to trump modest attempts to curb discrimination, intended or otherwise.

The report suggests that despite efforts to increase social mobility over the last ten to fifteen years or so – mainly through the expansion of higher education, largely by funnelling working-class kids to second and third tier colleges – elite firms have become less representative of the general population, with increasing proportions of recruits drawn from privileged socio-economic backgrounds and from a narrower range of the top universities where the majority of students come from fee-paying schools rather than from state education. Cabinet Office research shows that recent cohorts of lawyers and accountants, for example, are more likely to come from families with significantly above-average incomes. The report makes clear that in spotting ‘talent’ such firms define what they are after in terms of ‘drive’, ‘resilience’, ‘strong communication skills’ and above all ‘confidence’ and ‘polish’. All of these attributes, the report says, map readily onto middle-class status and socialisation. Recruiters tend to pass over those with working-class accents and dispositions in favour of ‘people like us’. The result is that the top accountancy firms offer up to 70 percent of their jobs to graduates who attended selective state or fee-paying schools, schools that educate only four percent and seven percent of the population as a whole. Buttressing this situation is the fact that the best firms are drawing on a narrower group of universities – the so called Russel Group, which equates to the US Ivy League. Some really elite firms bypass even these institutions and recruit only at Oxford or Cambridge.

The report brilliantly exposes how this situation is being made worse on both demand and supply sides, as students from lower socio-economic backgrounds decide not to apply for places or even internships – even paid ones – with top firms, recognising that the barriers to gaining a place are just too high for people like them. Even earlier in their educational careers, students with good grades from these same less advantaged groups tend to apply to lower level universities than their qualifications would allow.

While the insights from the report are discouraging, it has drawn attention to the class bias in the recruitment practices of elite firms. At long last, this report demonstrates that discrimination on the basis of class is an issue alongside other forms of discrimination. In the midst of further rounds of austerity imposed by the newly elected Conservative administration, it’s heartening to see terms like the ‘class ceiling’ appearing in government language. This overt attention to class suggests a real change from what I learned at Durham. If ever one tried to highlight class privilege, the topic of conversation was quickly changed, excuses made, and appeals to meritocracy sounded. For as loud as the voices of the privileged were that surrounded me at Durham, class was the thing that dare not speak its name.

Tim Strangleman

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11 Responses to Just Not Posh Enough? Social Mobility and the “Class Ceiling”

  1. Colum Paget says:

    It’s since leaving university that class has become something I’m very aware of. I got my consciousness raised very suddenly by the supposedly ‘left wing’ science-fiction community. In my experience none of the vocal people in that community have much time for phrases like ‘class ceiling’: to them class does not exist, and I’ve had people repeatedly claim that there’s some equivalence between me and David Cameron, because we’re both ‘white men’ and ‘white men hold power’. But all this might be because the middle-class is itself getting more and more desperate.

    As technological change and globalization hollows out the middle-class, and leaves fewer and fewer well-paying jobs, so the fight for those jobs will become more and more fierce. Equally there’s a battle going on between middle/upper class white men, who have traditionally held all the top spots, and middle/upper class women and minorities, who want to be allowed to have some of those spots themselves. Gender is foregrounded on this, but in some ways it’s a false battle, because it’s in the interest of any middle-class family to put both its sons and daughters into good positions. Both men and women in the upper classes are now looking to have spouses with good jobs, (which as they marry together will make class more entrenched) so who’s the enemy here?

    This is changing politics, as the ‘new left’ becomes more and more a vehicle for the second group, and the working-class are increasingly out in the cold. These days I think it’s very questionable that a rich woman in a power position is a win for the majority of women who are from poor backgrounds: the new boss will still pursue the interests of her class at their expense (though, she may have some value to them as a role model, and as someone who undermines claims that a woman can’t do the job, but those claims are going away anyway, because they’re not in the interests of middle-class families in the modern age).

    These days social forces are running against the working class in a way that seems unstoppable. Even the politics of the new, feminist, postcolonial left, is deeply hostile to them. It’s tough to imagine where we go from here. Class ceilings likely won’t be a strong enough metaphor for what’s coming.


  2. Colum Paget says:

    I had a very different experience when I went to Liverpool university. The middle-class kids there were largely accepting of those from working-class backgrounds, and to a large extent it seemed like a classless environment (sometimes something would pop up, but there was nothing to resent). Everyone got on famously, and I had many friends who were both from better-off backgrounds than me, and from worse off.

    I wonder why the experience was so different? It could be that the middle-class ppl I encountered at Liverpool had a different political outlook to those from Durham (maybe that’s why they didn’t go to Durham), or it could be that the environment was just mixed enough to prevent a division into ‘us’ and ‘them’. I’m glad of the experience though because, although it often seems that way, it shows that middle-class and upper-class people are not by default ‘the enemy’: rather that some human beings operating in certain environments will tend to misbehave in certain ways, and if you let them, then they come to define the environment and everyone has to play their game.


  3. Jack Labusch says:

    Tim, thanks. That “How to pass the posh test . . .” is funny and touching. I’ll guess a lot of job applicants everywhere are made to feel, like Stephen Moss, between two stools in some way. College grads in the States, I suspect, have been told they’re “overqualified” for that US $25,000 a year job, but “lack experience” for that US $45,000 a year gig.

    Then there are the patently unqualified–maybe. In the 1940s, an interviewer was looking for a candidate with a Nobel Prize, administrative experience in budgeting, planning, hiring, etc., and ability to withstand a wartime background investigation for security clearance at a nosebleed-high level. The only guy sort of interested lacks a Nobel, has no admin experience, plus, has relatives who are foreign nationals of an enemy power, and holds to political sympathies many of your colleagues would regard as inherently treasonous.

    Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves did hire Dr. Robert Oppenheimer for the Manhattan Project despite the latter’s obvious lack of qualifications.

    Maybe “allow for generous exceptions” ought to be a watchword in even the most bureaucratized hiring practices, just in case your HR’s boilerplate misses something important.


  4. Roy W Wilson says:

    Good article, Tim. You write that “social class prevents working-class, and increasingly even many lower middle-class kids from joining such blue-chip firms.” While in one sense I agree with you, I am also bothered by the social determinism this description suggests.

    I think, in keeping with my understanding of the work of Margaret Archer, that social class directly effects persons by shaping the costs they must pay to attain certain positions in an (sometimes very narrow) array of positions. Sometimes, the costs are so high that they cannot be paid regardless of the intention of the individual. Other times, however, the individual may choose to NOT seek a particular kind of position, either because they do not expect to succeed or because they reject the role expectations associated with the position. My guess is that, fairly often, persons of working-class origins (like myself), do not seek certain positions because of both factors. I suppose that someone influenced by Bourdieu might suggest that this “avoidance” of :the upper-crust” (in one form or another) is an illustration of the flexibiility, and the consistency, of the habitus.

    On the other side of things, can one blame those who hire others to deal with “the upper crust” to seek out those who are likely to be most successful is doing so? This is microeconomic rationality, the same kind that keeps some of us who came from the working-class wishing and hoping to get our children into our own local Oxbridges rather than Durham or Metropolitan State College (of Denver, Colorado).


    • Jack Labusch says:

      Roy, you sure about that “microeconomic rationality”? One employer I know posts nominal job openings, fills those positions by crony, then, occasionally, has to hire a second person to do the job the first person can’t or won’t do.


    • sco gro says:

      In most cases willing subjects are beside the point (or just a tiny fraction). The exclusion occurs outside working class conscious(es).


      • Roy W Wilson says:

        Sco gro,

        Interesting point, but not sure I’m understanding it properly. Does “outside working class conscious[nesses]” mean that actual or aspiring workers have no agency? If not, please clarify.


      • sco gro says:

        There’s no such thing as “no agency” or total information, or at least I wouldn’t venture them. For example, if someone holds up three cards and tells you to choose one, you may not realize that the other forty-nine cards are actually available to others. You may not even know they exist. Assuming that that these three cards are your choices, you consider carefully and select one. In most cases, there aren’t decisions to make at all; they’re already made for you. That doesn’t mean you have no agency.


      • Colum Paget says:

        # For example, if someone holds up three cards and tells you
        # to choose one, you may not realize that the other forty-nine
        # cards are actually available to others. You may not even
        # know they exist.

        That’s a really important point. One of the major disadvantages to people from working-class backgrounds is not even knowing what opportunities are available to you. I think the internet is changing this a bit, because instead of having to know someone who can pass the information onto you, you can find it online. But it’s still a big factor.


  5. sco gro says:

    I’ve heard that there are new studies indicating that class (or strata) are now even less porous in the USA than Britain. How is it that the elites in the US are more able to police the boundaries of class than the British?


  6. Thank you for the insightful article. It reminded me of my college days in the 60’s. I got a full ride to Lake Forest College in Lake Forest, IL, a bourgois town and a school calling itself “the Princeton of the midwest.” We scholarship kids hung together. Surprisingly, several of us helped the prep school lads write their papers, and though we didn’t become friends, there was a mutual respect, perhaps because us “poor kids” were leading the anti-war protests and they wanted to join in but were constrained by the threat to their social position and job prospects. We were freer in our ways to some extent, and they wished, I think, they could join us…


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