On the Class Ceiling

posted Nov 1, 2016, 12:44 PM by Daniel Laurison
by me & Sam Friedman (@samfriedmansoc)

this is a draft of a post that will be on the Work in Progress Blog at some point.

How “sticky” is your class of origin? That is, how much does the class you’re born in affect where you end up? This is the question studies of social mobility seek to answer, and they almost always do it by looking at the association between parents and their adult children on only one measure of class position – either income or occupation. Decades of this research show that social origin is a strong predictor of life outcomes – that is, there is much less intergenerational mobility than there would be if one’s class origin had no effect on one’s class destination. Sociologists primarily operationalize social class through aggregating sets of occupations with similar social status and employment situations into “big classes," or sometimes through looking at single occupations or “micro-classes.”

In a recent study, we take a different approach, looking at (big) occupational-class-origin effects on earnings for those in high-status jobs. We find that in the UK there is a “Class Pay Gap in Higher Managerial and Professional Occupations.” Working-class origin people earn substantially less – 17%, or about £7350/year ($11k US at the time we ran the numbers, less at post-Brexit conversion rates) than their privileged-origin peers in similar occupations. Even after controls for pretty much everything we could think of (and find in the survey data) that might affect earnings, the class-origin pay gap is about 9-10% or about £5500.

This shows the problem with reducing social mobility to the one-dimensional issue of access: it assumes that social mobility finishes at the point of occupational entry. The reality is that while many working-class people may secure admission into elite occupations, they don’t necessarily go on to achieve the same levels of success as those from more privileged backgrounds.

Our analysis examines data from the 2014 Labour Force Survey, Britain’s largest employment survey with a sample of 95,950. We analyze respondents in the 63 occupations that make up Class 1 of the UK Government’s National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC) – defined as Britain’s elite. We then look at the class origins of those in these occupations, and most importantly how their income varies according to their class background.

Our research shows that those who have been long-range upwardly mobile by this measure earn less than their peers from advantaged backgrounds. In other words, people whose parents were in what might be called the working class (e.g. factory workers, retail salespeople, hairdressers, truck drivers), who now work in higher professions or management (e.g. CEOs, professors, doctors, investment managers) earn substantially less than those in similar jobs whose parents were also in these higher professional or managerial positions.

This pay gap, we argue, points to a worrying and previously undetected “class ceiling” within Britain’s elite occupations. This class-origin pay gap is similar in size to the wage penalties for women in our analyses; when combined with the better-known gender pay gap, this means that that upwardly mobile women face a double disadvantage when compared to intergenerationally stable men.

Explaining the class-origin pay gap

These are striking figures and point towards the persistence of class-origin effects even beyond entry to elite occupations. But how might we explain this “class ceiling”? There are two sets of answers to this question – those we can get from the data in this study, and those we can get elsewhere.

In our article, we use a technique called a “Blinder-Oaxaca decomposition” to show that about half the differences in earnings between working-class-origin & privileged-origin people are explained by differences between the two groups (that were measured in the survey). There are three big sources of earnings differences we find here. First, education: working-class origin people have less education on average than those from better-off backgrounds. Next, work context: privileged-origin people are far more likely to work in London and in large firms, where salaries are much higher. Third, sorting: working-class origin people are less likely to be found in the highest-status and highest-salaried occupations in the UK’s top class: for example, while about 35% of UK workers have working-class origins, and about 18% of those in top jobs overall come from these backgrounds, only 5% of doctors, and only about 10% of CEOs, are what we call long-range socially mobile into these positions.

But these differences between the mobile and the intergenerationally stable in top jobs still leave a substantial class pay gap – that £7350 or so mentioned above – unexplained. Drawing on other research we and others have done, we’d argue that there are many further likely explanations. As Lauren Rivera’s excellent book Pedigree demonstrated in a US context, and Louise Ashley has shown in the UK, class-linked differences in cultural capital, such as private and elite schooling and comfort with dominant cultural norms and tastes, certainly play a role. So too does social capital, having connections to people who can help advance one’s career. It is likely also that parents who are higher professionals or managers provide direct economic help to that can advance their children’s careers, such as by housing costs so that their kids can take unpaid internships in London.

There are other mechanisms that are less well-documented (so far) but also likely play a role: working-class origin people may specialize in less-lucrative areas of their chosen fields, either because these appeal to them more, or because they didn’t have the familiarity with the field to understand the pay and prestige differences between, say, plastic surgery and general practice in medicine, or economics and sociology in academia. And last but certainly not least, it is likely that some of the pay gap we find is simply due to discrimination: that privileged origin people may not hire or promote working class people simply because of prejudices towards or dislike of working-class origin people, or a general sense that they just don’t “fit in” to their firms.

We are not suggesting here that the class pay gap is new. As our results show, individuals tend to always carry – at least in some shape or form – the symbolic baggage of the past. Moreover, the imprint of this history can have important consequences for both how people act in the present, and – perhaps more importantly – how they are evaluated by others.

We think this analysis highlights the need for research into intergenerational transmission of advantages that moves beyond single-variable definitions of “class position.” Class is clearly not only one’s occupation, however measured or aggregated, nor is it only one’s earnings or education. All of these combine with other kinds of resources (or capitals), many of them gained (or not) in growing up a certain class, to determine one’s life chances and social position. As we say in our article, a “Glasgow-based lawyer earning £50,000/year whose parents were factory workers is not meaningfully in the same class destination as a City of London lawyer earning £75,000, raised in a family of lawyers.”
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