How to Break Into the Elite

Why don’t working class graduates with good degrees get the best jobs?

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This documentary focuses on social mobility, and the myth of meritocracy, focusing on why working class graduates with good degrees struggle to get into the top jobs.

Statistics mentioned in the documentary

  • About 1/3rd of the population come from working class backgrounds, but only 10% make it into Britain’s top professions, and they earn 15% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds.
  • Put another way you are 6 times more likely to land an elite job if you’re upper middle class.
  • Russel Group University students with 2nd class degrees are more likely to go into a top profession than those from working class backgrounds and got a first.
  • Oxbridge candidates from privileged backgrounds end up earning more than those from less privileged backgrounds.
  • Banking and finance – 34% educated privately
  • Private equity – nearer 70%

Top employers want cultural capital as well as qualifications

The stats suggest that top employers are not rewarding what the universities are rewarding, and this is preventing working class kids from getting the top jobs.

City recruiters are looking for ‘polish’ in the way they present – if we break this down this means accent, mannerism, behavior, dress.

One of the areas most affected by this is sales in finance: it is felt that if employees don’t look and feel ‘reassuringly expensive’, this will undermine the firm/ sector.

To illustrate this we have an interview with one independent recruitment agent who has a woman with an Essex accent on her books who she ‘can’t get a job for love for money’

This also applies to the The Media Sector – 60K of last years grads aspired to a career in media, but working class students are at a disadvantage because they don’t have the cultural capital to ‘fit in’. With the media, there’s a kind of ‘studied informality’ and way of being ‘knowingly hip, and those from WC backgrounds are just confused by it… lack of being at ease.

It seems that having cultural capital is crucial to breaking into a job in Media: If you have a parent who works in film and television you’re 12 times more likely to work in the Media, and 60-70% of those who work in The Media come from professional and managerial backgrounds. Tacit knowledge, no explicit rules about how you get in.

The problem with all of this is that this set of rules are ‘tacit’ – they unwritten, a set of social codes which are quite ‘knowing’ (to with dress/ speak) and without being brought up with them, working class people struggle to make the leap of selfhood required to get into the top jobs.

Why the working classes lack confidence….

People from disadvantaged backgrounds have more unstable lives, those from more advantaged have more stable lives and are more likely to have been brought up being listened to and having their opinions valued as a peer, that breeds familiarity and confidence – knowing that everything’s going to ‘be OK’ tomorrow.

Three contrasting case studies

The documentary uses case of students who have just graduated, some working class and struggling to get good jobs despite their top degrees from good universities, and one middle class student:

Amaan – has a degree in Economics from Nottingham and has wanted a i equity sales in an investment bank (since he was 13), also world kickboxing champion at 17, but he struggles with a lack of confidence in interviews.

Elvis from East London – has a degree in political economy at Birmingham, wants a city job in finance, he ends up getting onto a graduate training programme with bank (if I remember correctly).

Finally, Ben from Dulwich, screamingly middle class who charmed his way into London Live and the local press – he was just pushy, winged it, and looks set to get a career in the media despite his degree in Classics.

Ian Wright and the Internal Class Ceiling

Unexpectedly the documentary has a section featuring Ian Write, from a working class background who talks about the prejudice he has faced in his media career.

He even says we should abolish private schools and ‘give the working class guns’ to get over the middle class advantage, and that interview training and soft skills are bullshit – you shouldn’t have to be someone you’re not.

Relevance to A-level sociology

There are very obvious links here to the cultural capital topic within the education module!

Sources/ find out more

  • Sam Friedman* – researches the link between social class and higher professional and managerial jobs
  • And a link to the documentary.
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