Better to smash the class ceiling than rage at it

By Clare Foges in THE TIMES, 28 January 2019

Do you have supper or tea? Do you turn up the heating or stick on another woolly jumper? Do you talk about property prices more than is healthy? Brown sauce or ketchup? Nan or Granny? Toilet or loo? All these little signals that, taken together, lead to a conclusion: upper, upper-middle, lower-middle or working class, it is crass but let us not pretend these distinctions don’t exist, or that we don’t pay attention any more. John Major dreamt of a “classless society”. Fat chance! The old divides are still there, if softened from thick black marker to feathery pencil.

A book out today, The Class Ceiling, confirms that the class system is as entrenched here as the white cliffs of Dover. Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison have compiled much dispiriting data showing that “the link between people’s origins and destinations remains doggedly persistent in contemporary Britain”. Elite occupations are still dominated by the privileged. One striking fact: those from upper-middle-class backgrounds are 12 times more likely to become doctors than those from working-class backgrounds.

Some of this is explained by educational inequality, of course. Yet even when those from working-class backgrounds get the Oxbridge education and the first-class degree, they are still less likely to be found in top jobs, earning top salaries. Scandalously, the book reveals that among graduates from Russell Group universities, those from privileged backgrounds who got a lower second-class degree are still more likely to enter a top occupation than those from working-class backgrounds who got a first.

If not just education, what is it that forms the class ceiling? The Bank of Mum and Dad, which allows middle-class graduates to do the low-paid work that is often the first rung on the career ladder. The networks, too: getting a foot in the door because your godmother’s neighbour’s son is the boss. But the class ceiling is about more than money, contacts and schooling. It is also formed by what we might term “fit and polish” — the manner and bearing that whisper to the recruiter that someone is the right fit; Someone Like Us.

The Class Ceiling’s authors describe two candidates being interviewed for the same sought-after mid-career scheme for media professionals. Upper-middle-class Sophie has an “informal demeanour” and “knowing humour”; she jokes with the panel about rubbish 1990s TV shows and puts everyone at ease. Working-class Martin wears a suit he looks uncomfortable in, is serious, intense. Guess who wins? Not a cigarette paper between their professional achievements, but she had the banter, the ease.

And critically, I learnt that around such people, lightness is essential and earnestness the worst crime. It doesn’t do to be too serious. Far better to be jolly and vague than earnest and right — marking you out as someone who doesn’t really get it.

I adjusted to fit — and this, in essence, is my suggestion for dealing with the injustice of the class ceiling. Many would argue that it is not those at the rough end of this system who should change but the system itself. Bastions of privilege should be torn down; working-class candidates not required to shape-shift because of outdated notions about what merit looks or sounds like. This is all very well in theory, but it goes against the grain of that powerful instinct homophily; the tendency to gravitate towards people like us. Middle-class recruiters will never be able to ditch their bias for fit and polish. Besides, can we be honest that these qualities — speaking correctly and clearly, having confidence, manufacturing chumminess where necessary — are in themselves desirable?

To help those from less advantaged backgrounds crack the class ceiling, we need to get better at helping them to emulate the ease and studied informality of the privileged. Universities should be doing more to nurture confidence: more Oxbridge-style one-on-one mentoring in which rigorous discussion helps a student to feel bolder by championing their opinions and simply hearing the sound of their own voice. There should be more mixing of private and state school pupils: not arms-length sponsorship (use our playing fields a couple of times a year), but real opportunities for students to learn with, compete against, play alongside those from wholly different backgrounds. The tax breaks independent schools receive should be more clearly linked to this.

There should be a far greater emphasis in state schools on cultivating soft skills. Some schools already do superb work with debating societies, mentoring, a requirement for impeccable manners, handshakes and eye contact — we need a national push on all this. And if we are to crack the class ceiling, that rather tweedy word “elocution” must be revived. Like it or not, we are judged the moment we open our mouths.

This is not a suggestion we all go RP, but there are many teenagers today whose grammar and “street” accent are ensuring they will never be viewed as a serious professional prospect. It would be a shot in the arm to social mobility if schools could teach young people to speak properly, clearly, crisply. Call this snobby; I call it realistic.

We can rail at the bastions of privilege all we like, but the privileged will always pull every string going to get their children the breaks, recruiters will always gravitate to people like them, fit and polish will always give some candidates the edge. We can as easily fight all this as turn back the tides. Yet the class ceiling remains an infuriating injustice for those who are capable but stuck in a slower lane than their posher peers. Though we can’t beat privilege, for their sakes we must help more, in manners and mien, to join it.

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