The Class Ceiling

Examining the concept of a class ceiling across three dimensions: what it is, how it’s measured and why it exists.

What is it?

The concept of a class ceiling, originally coined by sociologists Sam Friedman and Danial Laurison in 2015 is similar in sound and content to the more-familiar idea of a glass ceiling.

While the glass ceiling relates to the idea that women (and, increasingly, ethnic minorities of either sex) experience forms of workplace discrimination that leave them stuck at the lower levels of workplace hierarchies (they can “look up” to the higher levels but can rarely reach them because their progress is blocked by unseen barriers), the concept of a class ceiling refers more-generally to the discrimination faced by working class employees in middle-class occupations, such as teaching, finance and medicine.

In other words, those individuals with working class family backgrounds who manage to make it into middle class professions face a level of workplace discrimination not experienced by their middle and upper class peers that manifests itself in two main ways:

  • Inter-occupational mobility: the top positions in the workplace hierarchy are generally filled by those with middle and upper class backgrounds while those with lower class backgrounds are over-represented in the lower workplace levels.
  • Intra-occupational mobility: within the same occupational levels those with a working class background are much more likely to be grouped at or around the bottom of the scale.

How is it measured?

As with its feminist counterpart, the existence and effect of the class ceiling can be empirically measured in two main ways:

Firstly, at the inter-occupational level we can look at different professions, measure the social backgrounds of employees and chart their progress – or lack of same – up the corporate hierarchy.

Secondly, at the intra-occupational level where we can measure differences in pay between people at the same occupational level but from different social backgrounds.

These two forms of measurement are important because, as Friedman and Laurison argue, there is “a danger of reducing social mobility to a one-dimensional issue of access” whereby questions of mobility begin and end at “the point of occupational entry“.  In other words, while conventional measures of social mobility look at the extent to which those of working class origin are able to enter professional, middle-class, forms of employment – and deduce from such measures the extent of mobility in a society – Friedman and Laurison suggest “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“.

While the extent of entry into middle (and upper) class occupations “from below” is clearly important, Friedman and Laurison examined intra-occupational inequality within elite occupations, something they operationalised through the class pay gap. This involved calculating the income difference between two people doing the same job but having different social backgrounds.

In this respect, their research has consistently concluded is that “even when those from working-class backgrounds are similar to their advantaged colleagues in every way we can measure, they still earn significantly less“.

  • In 2015, for example, “In contemporary Britain, it quite literally pays to be privileged. Even when those from working-class backgrounds are successful in entering the country’s elite occupations, they go on to earn, on average, £6,400 less than colleagues whose parents did “middle-class” professional or managerial jobs – a nearly 16% class pay gap“.
  • By 2022 the class pay gap had narrowed slightly to13%, while it increased slightly in real terms to £6,700. The pay gap was, however, much larger in some professions such as finance ( (£13,713) and medicine (£10,218) than others such as IT (£4,736).

To put this in perspective, from Sunday November 13th, 2022 to the end of the year, working class professionals effectively work for free compared to their middle-class peers.

Why does it exist?

Friedman and Laurison have noted a number of ways something like the class pay gap has been explained, ranging from class prejudice and discrimination, to the idea that “working-class people are simply younger on average than those from privileged backgrounds and therefore less far along in their careers” or that “the privileged may have higher rates of educational attainment“.

The problem with most of these types of explanation is, as Friedman and Laurison argue, that when people were matched across measures like education, those from higher class backgrounds still earned more than those from lower class backgrounds.

Sociological explanations for this situation, therefore, tend to focus on three main areas:

1. Workplace segregation: Friedman and Laurison, for example, found that the professional workplaces they researched showed clear evidence of horizontal forms of segregation – people from different social backgrounds congregated in different departments: in the “most prestigious and high-paying departments“, for example, only 7% of employees had working class backgrounds. In less prestigious departments, the figure rose to 22%. There was also clear evidence of vertical forms of segregation with only a very small percentage of higher status executives drawn from working class backgrounds.

2. Social capital: membership of informal social networks both inside and outside the workplace was seen as a key driver of the class ceiling and class pay gap. These contacts helped “grease the wheels” of career progress in a couple of important ways:

First, we consistently saw the profound advantages afforded to those who can draw upon “the bank of mum and dad”. This kind of financial patronage is pivotal in propelling careers forward, particularly in precarious areas like the cultural industries. Here money acts as an important early career lubricant, allowing the privileged to manoeuvre into more promising career tracks, resist exploitative employment and take risky opportunities – all of which increase their chances of long-term success. In contrast, those who lack the insulation of family money described the day-to-day of making a living in these areas a kind of economic chaos, or as one actor put it, ‘like skydiving without a parachute’“.

How does private schooling contribute to the class ceiling?

Second, in many elite occupations, support is more likely to come from above. And instead of economic it is often social – in the form of sponsorship. This process is simple; a senior leader identifies a junior protege and then, often operating beneath formal processes, is able to fast-track their career by brokering job opportunities, allocating valuable work or advocating on their behalf. This was particularly common at our accountancy firm, where most partners talked openly about “bringing through” younger staff to the partnership“. This idea is particularly-pertinent to our third area of explanation.

3. Cultural capital: one of the big advantages afforded by cultural capital is the ability to “fit into” a particular environment and to behave as if that is where you naturally belong. Employees from working-class backgrounds, for example, appear less likely to push for pay rises and sometimes “exclude themselves” from potential promotions for fear of not “fitting in”.

A further aspect of cultural capital researchers have identified is “cultural matching”, a process whereby people of similar class backgrounds gravitate towards oner another professionally and socially – a further link between cultural and social capital and one noted by Friedman and Laurison when they argue that the kind of “sponsorship from above” they noted as an aspect of social capital was also closely related to various forms of cultural capital: “while this was often presented as innocent talent-spotting, we found that sponsor relationships were rarely established on the basis of work performance. Instead, they were almost always forged, in the first instance, through a sense of class-cultural affinity – shared humour, taste or lifestyle. And, as senior managers across our case studies were themselves overwhelmingly from privileged backgrounds, this acts as another way that progression is rigged in favour of the privileged”.

In this context its important to note that the concept of a class ceiling is itself a hierarchical construct: the further away you are from the “white, male, middle-class, norm”, the greater the income differences between those nominally doing the same jobs.

As Friedman and Laurison note, the pay gap “is exacerbated for women, people with disabilities, and most ethnic minorities. Each face a distinct double disadvantage. Women from working-class backgrounds, for example, earn on average £19,000 a year less in elite occupations than men from privileged backgrounds, and the figure is even higher for non-white women“.

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