Life & Culture

Class ceiling gets harder to break

In his latest Jewniversity column, David Edmonds looks at the work of Sam Friedman on social class


As everyone now knows, the class divisions which once characterised British society are a thing of the past. Old privilege has gone. Meritocracy reigns. People who get on in their careers do so based purely on their talent and hard work.

Well, it’s a nice story. But according to Sam Friedman, it’s nothing more than fiction.

Last year, Friedman co-authored (with Daniel Laurison) a highly-regarded book of sociology called The Class Ceiling. They discovered a pay gap in elite professions and to try to understand it they focused in particular on four — accountancy and architecture, and two others which though not remunerated to the same extent, have status and carry cultural influence — acting and television.

Broadly speaking, the research had two elements, the quantitative and the qualitative. The quantitative — the number crunching — revealed that a significant class gap remained. There was not just a class gap in who gained access to the elite professions but also who then got promotion — as Friedman puts it, class remains salient both for “getting in and getting on”. What’s more, this gap cannot not be accounted for by any difference in educational qualifications. A middle-class person receives an average income 16 per cent higher than a working-class person with the same credentials in the same profession.

How to explain this? Well, that’s where the qualitative research came in. Friedman and his co-author conducted 200 interviews in an attempt to identify how class privilege functioned. They came up with several hypotheses.

First and foremost, the ‘‘Bank of Mum and Dad’’. In the creative industries in particular, work can be precarious, especially at the onset of careers. Those from well-off families are more financially insulated. That means they can afford to take more risks — perhaps putting on a costly show at the Edinburgh Festival where it might be seen by an influential media executive.

It’s no coincidence that so many actors have been privately educated.

Second, the role of “sponsorship”. Typically, people get promoted and fast-tracked because they’ve been spotted (and perhaps mentored) by individuals in positions of power. The authors of The Class Ceiling suggest that the way this relationship is forged is seldom to do with performance and much more likely to do with cultural affinity; the person being sponsored shares a background and outlook with the person in power. It’s not that this is necessarily a conscious process: we all feel more at ease with those who are similar to us.

Linked to this is knowledge of the social norms within a profession. TV likes to see itself as an informal industry – there are no suits and few ties. But in fact there are still many unarticulated rules — there is an informal dress code (described in the book as “studied informality”). You have to know when it’s OK to put your feet on the table, when it’s appropriate to swear. And often in meetings people demonstrate (show-off) a range of cultural references which can exclude those from less privileged backgrounds.

Class inequalities are likely to be exacerbated post-pandemic. Although the media likes to see itself as a progressive industry, ironically, it’s the more technical professions – like engineering – which come close to the meritocratic ideal, principally because they have a less opaque and more objective way of measuring performance.

Sam Friedman was raised in Bristol in a “a privileged upper-middle class background.” That’s his description and, as a class specialist, he should know. His mother ended up as a lecturer, his Jewish father, who’d been brought up in an Orthodox family in Winnipeg, Canada, was a professor of management at the University of Bristol .

Sam himself had an almost entirely secular upbringing. Nonetheless, he says he’s “always been intrigued by Jewishness, and Jewish culture”.

He spent several years as a comedy critic and had a particular fascination with Jewish humour. This informed his first book which investigated the link between class and comedy – and what in the UK counted as “good’’ comedy.

His next project is an analysis of the 120-year historical database of Who’s Who.

One day, he might be asked whether he wants to feature in it. I somehow doubt he will.


David Edmonds works at the BBC



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