Children of doctors are 24 times more likely than their peers to become doctors. Children of lawyers are 17 times more likely to go into law, and children of those in film or television are 12 times more likely to enter these fields. The same pattern is repeated in architecture and in the performing arts. These are the revelations announced in a new book, ‘The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged’, by Sam Friedman, a professor at the London School of Economics, and Daniel Laurison. The book sets out to explore the “helping hands” that allow the well-connected middle-classes to retain their domination in elite professions. Dr Friedman calls some of these figures “staggering”. But are they really? Historically, they are nothing of the sort. After all, there is nothing remotely new, abnormal or “elitist” about children following in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to career choice.
The acting world abounds in Redgraves and Foxes, Fondas and Fairbankses. The broadcasting world has its Dimblebys and Snows. Politics has seen more than one Pitt, Churchill and Bush. When it comes to writing we can talk of Amis the father or son, just as we can with Waughs, Corens and Mounts. Charles Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus was an eminent natural philosopher. Pablo Picasso’s father was an artist. There was a whole host of musical Bachs.
It’s something we see in all classes. A nurse’s daughter is 3.75 times more likely to become a nurse than the rest of the population, according to a 2016 study. The research also revealed that a fifth of daughters whose mothers worked in offices and administrative support chose the same career, twice the usual rate, while a son who had a father in the military was five times more likely to enter the military. Sons of bakers and builders have traditionally become bakers and builders. That’s why the names of their businesses traditionally have the appendage “…& Sons.” This is why we talk of “family butchers”.
Farmer’s sons have historically become farmers. If you are immersed in the world of farming from the very beginning of your life, farming will be close to your heart, intrinsic to your identity. The same goes for children of actors, who will hear their parents talking about acting from infancy, meet other actors who have come round to visit, talk about acting to actors. A child of a journalist, who grows up with Radio 4 constantly and unrelentingly blaring in the background, in a home where the shelves heave with books on history, biography and literature, will one day pick up a copy of the many newspapers found lying on the kitchen table. And so the child’s fate is sealed.
Even Friedman admits the importance of this childhood immersion. “Who feels at age 14 that they are going to go on and be a doctor? It’s a pretty wild ambition. But if you’ve got a mum or dad normalising that world for you and saying it’s a distinct possibility, that’s quite emboldening,” he told the Times on Saturday. Parents educate their children in the informal “rules of the game”.
As David Grusky, sociology professor at Stanford university, and author of the study “It’s a decent bet that our children will be professors too”, told the Financial Times in 2016, his own children were more likely to be academics because they’ve been “trained” from a very early age in the way professors “think, reason, and write”. “Imagine the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse,” Grusky said. “We can imagine the engineer’s family talked mainly about why the building failed structurally, whereas the sociologist’s family talked mainly about why there is terrorism.”
This is not to say there isn’t something to be said for the existence of a “class ceiling”. Friedman writes of the “inheritance of cultural capital” enjoyed by upper middle-class children. They speak and dress like those at the top of their chosen profession. Consequently they are more likely to have their careers fast-tracked by bosses. Working-class graduates of equal merit often lack the polished demeanour and confidence of their middle-class or upper-class peers, which can be a clincher in job interviews. (This problem could be remedied by teaching working-class pupils to speak with greater clarity, eloquence and confidence. But such a solution would face resistance on the grounds of “elitism”.)
The real hindrance for children from working class families is that their parents are less able to subsidise that all-important period of work experience at the outset of their careers. But this is a consequence of a greater global phenomenon, of an era in which social mobility has decreased and inequality increased.
On the other hand, there remains nothing intrinsically odd or novel about children of doctors becoming doctors. It is the natural and historical way of the world.
Patrick West is a columnist for Spiked and author of Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times (Societas, 2017)