(The Atlantic) The ‘Hidden Mechanisms’ That Help Those Born Rich to Excel in Elite Jobs
JOE PINSKER FEB 26, 2019
When two sociologists interviewed highly paid architects, TV producers, actors, and accountants, they encountered work cultures that favor the already affluent.
Over the past five years, the sociologists Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman have uncovered a striking, consistent pattern in data about England’s workforce: Not only are people born into working-class families far less likely than those born wealthy to get an elite job—but they also, on average, earn 16 percent less in the same fields of work.
Laurison and Friedman dug further into the data, but statistical analyses could only get them so far. So they immersed themselves in the cultures of modern workplaces, speaking with workers—around 175 in all—in four prestigious professional settings: a TV-broadcasting company, a multinational accounting firm, an architecture firm, and the world of self-employed actors.
The result of this research is Laurison and Friedman’s new book, The Class Ceiling: Why It Pays to Be Privileged, which shows how the customs of elite workplaces can favor those who grew up wealthier. The authors describe a series of “hidden mechanisms”—such as unwritten codes of office behavior and informal systems of professional advancement—that benefit the already affluent while disadvantaging those with working-class backgrounds.
In January, shortly before the book’s U.K. release, I interviewed Laurison, a professor at Swarthmore College, who told me that while England’s class politics do differ from those of the U.S., his and Friedman’s findings about “money, connections, and culture” broadly apply to Americans as well. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Joe Pinsker: In the book, you write about a financial cushion available to certain college graduates that you refer to as “the bank of mom and dad.” How does this work, and what are its consequences for who gets a chance at certain jobs?
Daniel Laurison: I think the image that we have—or the ideology, if you want to be political about it—is once you’re 18 or so, you make your own way and your class origin is not an important part of how your career goes from there. But what my co-author Sam and I found was, that’s not at all true.
In the book, we talked about people pursuing acting, which is a very contingent, hard path to pursue. Most people, when they start, aren’t making most of their money from acting, and so people who are able to rely on their parents to help them are much more able to pursue acting fully, because they don’t have to worry about maintaining a regular, full-time job just to eat and live.
That’s the starkest example in the book, but there are lots of other ways that having money from your parents can make a difference in your career. In the U.K., if you work in London, you’re likely to earn a lot more, and you’re more likely to be at the center of your field. And living in London is very expensive. So a lot of people who are living in London got some help from their parents to make a down payment on a house or some help with the rent, which was the case in fields other than acting, too. And the other place I think parents’ help makes a big difference is in who can take unpaid or very low-paid internships, which are the entry points for lots of high-status, high-paid careers.
Pinsker: And once people get these sorts of jobs, you write about the importance of “sponsorship”—basically, when some senior employee informally takes someone younger under their wing and helps them advance through the company. What did you notice about how those systems of sponsorship worked?
Laurison: I think that a lot of people, on some level what they think they’re doing when they sponsor young co-workers is spotting talent—they called it “talent-mapping” in the accounting firm we studied. But a lot of people we talked to were also able to reflect and say, “Part of why I was excited about that person, probably, is because they reminded me of a younger version of myself.” The word we use in sociology is homophily—people like people who are like themselves.
One of the big ideas of the book, for me, is it’s really hard for any given individual in any given situation to fully parse what’s actual talent or intelligence or merit, and what’s, Gosh, that person reminds me of me, or I feel an affinity for them because we can talk about skiing or our trips to the Bahamas. Part of it is also that what your criteria are for a good worker often comes from what you think makes you a good worker.
Pinsker: In the workplaces you studied, who tended to lose out in these systems of sponsorship?
Laurison: In three of the four fields we studied, it was poor and working-class people, and also women and people of color. There are lots of axes along which homophily can cloud senior people’s judgment about who’s meritorious.
Pinsker: You also talk a lot about the unwritten codes of behavior that can shape who advances and who doesn’t at certain workplaces. What’s an example of how that played out?
Laurison: Probably the best example of this is the television-production firm we studied. The name that we gave to the culture there was “studied informality”—nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of “right” way to do it and a “wrong” way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man—who was black and from a working-class background—who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.