Just Sociology

Exploring The Myth of Meritocracy: Social Mobility Cultural Capital and Privilege in Top Jobs

Social mobility is widely seen as a hallmark of equal opportunity societies, where merit is rewarded regardless of a persons background. However, the reality is often far from the ideal of meritocracy, with working-class individuals struggling to break into elite professions, while the upper middle class dominates.

This article explores the myth of meritocracy by examining social mobility, cultural capital, and privilege in top jobs. Additionally, the article addresses the issue of lack of confidence and stability among disadvantaged individuals and how it impacts their professional advancement.

Working Class Struggle in Top Jobs

Social mobility, or the ability to move up the social ladder, often remains elusive for the working class, particularly in top professions. Meritocracy is viewed as a fair, just, and inclusive system that rewards individual abilities and efforts, regardless of their background.

However, research suggests that those from working-class backgrounds have fewer opportunities to excel in their professions due to inbuilt biases and structural inequality. Studies show that only one in six doctors, one in eight lawyers, and one in five journalists come from working-class backgrounds in the United Kingdom.

In contrast, 40% of the UK population comes from the working class. Furthermore, social mobility in the UK has stalled, with the top jobs still dominated by the middle and upper-middle classes.

The British Social Attitudes Survey found that 70% of people in the UK believe that social mobility has decreased over the past decade. This evidence contradicts the claim that meritocracy translates into equal opportunities for everyone.

Privilege and Elite Jobs

Elite professions, such as banking and finance, require a level of cultural capital that those from privileged backgrounds possess. Oxbridge dominates entry into top jobs, and access to these universities is heavily skewed towards the wealthy.

Private schools and private tutoring provide an education system that caters to the needs of the privileged, affording them more comfortable routes into higher education and eventually the top jobs. Research shows that over half of those in top employers come from privileged backgrounds, and those from private schools are five times more likely to reach the most senior roles than those from state schools.

In contrast, those from disadvantaged backgrounds face difficulties in terms of access to good schools, adequate resources, and cultural capital, making it difficult for them to compete in elite professions.

Cultural Capital and the Job Market

Cultural capital is the possession of non-financial social assets, such as attitudes, values, and cultural knowledge, that signal a particular status and class background. Culture and background play a significant role in shaping the recruitment experience for elite professions.

Research shows that recruiters in these professions use markers like dress, accent, behavior, and media consumption as indicators of cultural capital, creating biases against working-class individuals. Those from middle-class backgrounds with cultural capital have a clear advantage over working-class individuals, even if they may not be academically equipped to perform the job’s role.

Recruitment in finance provides an example of how cultural capital plays out in recruitment. Private schools dominate entry into finance, and those from privileged backgrounds typically have the cultural capital needed to secure entry into top firms through an established network.

Sale teams and traders, who account for the majority of finance jobs, are expected to possess confidence, assertiveness, and a willingness to take risks, characteristics often associated with cultural capital.

Confidence and Familiarity

Confidence is a significant factor in professional advancement. Sadly, disadvantaged individuals often miss out on professional opportunities and promotions because of a lack of confidence instilled by their upbringing.

They find it challenging to compete for the best opportunities since they often lack the necessary confidence to advocate for themselves effectively. Similarly, those from disadvantaged backgrounds frequently experience a challenging home life that an interview panel might view as unstable, making the interviewer doubt the applicant’s suitability for the role.

The impact of an unstable upbringing tends to be in contrast to those from middle-class backgrounds, who often grow up in more familiar and predictable surroundings, leading to greater confidence and self-assuredness in the professional environment.

Three Case Studies

To illustrate the impact of background on professional advancement, consider these three case studies: Amaan, Elvis, and Ben. Amaan is from a working-class background and follows the traditional academic path through university but lacks confidence and assertiveness, so he struggles in interviews.

Despite having accomplished credits to his name, he is often passed over for opportunities presented to his confident and assertive peers. Elvis, from a middle-class background, is confident and outgoing, making him a more compelling character to recruiters, yet he lacks the necessary academic accolades expected of the role, leading to a subpar performance on the job.

Finally, Ben, from a middle-class background with excellent academic qualifications and cultural capital, is hired for a prestigious finance job in London, owing to his familiarity with the banking industry and the required markers of cultural capital. Conclusion:

In conclusion, social mobility and meritocracy remain idealistic goals in modern societies.

The relative position of individuals in society is heavily influenced by their background, culture, and upbringing. Working-class individuals continue to face an uphill battle for professional advancement in elite professions, while cultural capital and markers of privilege persist.

Furthermore, a lack of confidence and familiarity in those from disadvantaged backgrounds is an additional obstacle, making it challenging to compete for top jobs, even with sufficient academic qualifications. Addressing these issues to create fairer opportunities for social mobility remains a priority for policymakers and organizations keen on promoting inclusion, diversity, and equity.


3: Cultural Capital in Education

The education system is critical in shaping individual life chances and opportunities for social mobility. However, cultural capital shapes how individuals perceive, respond, and interact with education systems.

This section explores cultural capital in education, with a focus on tacit knowledge and social codes.

Tacit Knowledge and Social Codes

Tacit knowledge refers to the knowledge that is difficult to codify or articulate, such as business acumen or social skills. It encompasses the implicit practices, values, and attitudes in a society that shape the social codes and interactions.

The education system has its own set of tacit knowledge and operating rules. Individuals from middle-class backgrounds are likely to have tacit knowledge and social codes relevant to education, such as the language and etiquette for institutional interactions.

In contrast, those from working-class backgrounds may not have this tacit knowledge, leading to being unable to navigate the education system easily. This inequality often results in limited opportunities to attain higher education levels, which can affect social mobility and life chances.

Completing education and moving on to employment involves building a network of connections, which is linked to cultural capital. Those from privileged backgrounds have immediate access to these networks and social codes that can help propel them towards job opportunities, while working-class students are often unaware of their existence.

Ian Wright and Internal Class Ceiling

Ian Wright is a well-known football pundit on the BBC, and, in many ways, an archetypal working-class hero. He was a talented footballer who made it to the top, playing for the England National Team and Arsenal Football Club.

But despite his success on the pitch, he faced barriers moving into the media industry. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper, Ian Wright detailed some of the challenges he faced, including the class ceiling he encountered.

The class ceiling refers to the limitation of opportunities for social mobility based on an individual’s social background rather than their abilities. Ian Wright faced significant prejudice and bias from media executives due to his working-class background.

He stated, “They [the media executives] can’t deal with me, and they never will. I’m made of something they can’t relate to.”

Furthermore, the media industry is heavily reliant on cultural capital to secure positions.

Those from privileged backgrounds typically have access to interview training, internships, and extensive quantities of soft skills that can help them secure top positions in the industry. The issue with the internal class ceiling is that it limits social mobility, and the lack of diversity in positions of influence in the media industry can lead to bias in media coverage, which ultimately impacts public opinion.

Additionally, private schools provide opportunities for students to develop cultural capital that gives them an advantage over individuals from working-class backgrounds. Private schools offer ample opportunities for extracurricular activities, mentorship, and extensive networks.

This, coupled with a better education system, helps to bridge the gap between school and employment. As a result, graduates of private schools are more likely to access top-level employment promptly after graduation.

Ian Wright attributes his success to his resilience and determination to succeed. However, his story highlights how class prejudice and cultural capital can limit an individual’s opportunities for social mobility, even someone with his level of success.


Cultural capital plays a significant role in shaping how individuals interact and engage with education systems in society. Tacit knowledge and social codes contribute significantly to the experience of the education system and the opportunities available for social mobility.

Additionally, the internal class ceiling can be a significant barrier to social mobility, especially in industries like the media. Those from working-class backgrounds may face significant prejudice and bias from employers due to their lack of cultural capital.

Policymakers must prioritize addressing cultural capital and class prejudice as barriers to social mobility, with initiatives such as diversifying the education system and increasing access to training and mentorship programs. Ultimately, addressing cultural capital and class prejudice will create a more equitable society, where individuals can access opportunities based on their abilities and not their social background.


In conclusion, social mobility and meritocracy remain an ideal rather than a reality, especially for those from a working-class background. Cultural capital and social codes play a significant role in shaping an individual’s opportunities for social mobility, and the internal class ceiling often limits the chances of success for those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Addressing these issues is crucial to promoting inclusion, diversity, and equity in society, ultimately creating a more equitable and just world. FAQs:

Q: What is social mobility?

A: Social mobility refers to the ability of an individual or family to move up or down a society’s social ladder. Q: What is cultural capital?

A: Cultural capital refers to a set of non-financial social assets, such as attitudes, values, and cultural knowledge, that signal a particular background or status. Q: How does cultural capital affect social mobility?

A: Cultural capital plays a significant role in shaping how individuals interact and engage with education systems in society, affecting their chances of social mobility. Q: What is the internal class ceiling?

A: The internal class ceiling is a barrier to social mobility based on an individual’s social background rather than their abilities. Q: How can policymakers address social mobility and cultural capital?

A: Policymakers can address social mobility and cultural capital by diversifying the education system, increasing access to training and mentoring programs, and reducing prejudice and bias in the workplace. Q: Why is social mobility important?

A: Social mobility is essential because it provides opportunities for individuals to achieve their maximum potential, regardless of their social background, facilitating a diverse and equitable society.

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