Social Class and Career Development - Is it Getting the Recognition it Deserves?


Samantha Kilmartin is a HR and career development specialist and is currently completing her PhD through Griffith University. She cares deeply about access, diversity and inclusion in the workplace and her current research explores social mobility, class and barriers to employment. 

Have you ever stopped to consider your social class and the impact it has had on your career? In Australia, we tend not to talk about class, even though we know it impacts all stages of someone’s working life starting with occupational awareness and perceptions about the role of work. In this article, I look at some of the research relating to class and why I think conversations and considerations of class are important in career development.   

What is class?
There is quite extensive literature relating to class; how you define it, how you measure it and how you move between classes (social mobility). Most people are familiar with the standard three levels (working, middle and upper) and most people are quite accurate when asked to determine their own class status. A few years ago, the Australian National University (ANU) conducted some research on class and they determined six levels of class were alive and well in Australia1. If you’re interested to see where you might fit, the link to ANU’s research can be accessed here.

In the UK, where class and social mobility issues are key government agenda items, they tend to use three levels (working, middle and professional class). Many organisations track and measure the social class make-up of their workforces and they use a simple methodology for determining someone’s class. They ask the question, ‘At age 14, what was the occupation of your main household earner?’, the information provided then maps onto occupation categories to determine the class status2. It’s a simple and accurate way to determine class status and because it’s a short question it has a high response rate.  

Recent research on class and employment
There is some really interesting research on ‘who gets in’ to certain fields of work – think about the ‘old boys clubs’ and occupations that were once defined by class, such as law or medicine. Lauren Rivera explored this concept looking at elite occupations in the USA and how organisations use social class ‘markers’ (like playing tennis or attending an Ivy League School) to hire from more privileged classes3. While social exclusion still exists, we can also see that barriers to entry are slowly being removed and access to these occupations is improving.  

More recently, Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison took a slightly different angle and looked at the impact of class once you are employed. Their research from the UK found that social class continues its impact well into employment and into the way individuals progress in a workplace with some surprising findings4.

Across a range of industries, they found evidence of a ‘Class Ceiling’, where those from working class backgrounds were less likely to progress into managerial or senior roles. Furthermore, they also found evidence of a ‘Class Pay Gap’, where within the same organisations and same roles, people from working class backgrounds were paid less.  

Surely not, I hear you cry, surely people from working class backgrounds are paid the same?!  How would organisations get away with it? There would be a public outcry! Well, in the UK there was, and now organisations publish their class pay gaps in an attempt to improve transparency and hopefully move the needle on social class diversity (an example of a pay gap report from PWC is here).

Australia’s Approach
Australia has lower levels of income inequalities than other highly developed countries, with a relatively low unemployment rate and high levels of degree attainment (around half of the adult population has a university degree). There is a perception that Australia is a fairly equal society without the ‘class-based shackles’ of the UK, however evidence shows we may need to delve a bit deeper and really question whether this is the case.

For example, we know that students from under-resourced backgrounds, including those from low socio-economic (SES) backgrounds, do not experience university in the same way as the general population and they have different employment outcomes. Students from low SES backgrounds are less likely to complete degrees, but for those who do, they are less likely to work full-time and less likely to be working in an area that fully utilises their skills. Furthermore, they are poorly represented in managerial and professional occupations, roles where much of the job’s growth will occur over the next 20 years - these roles also include many of the jobs with higher salaries.  

Class and Career Development
Most of the research around class and career development looks at the individual and their access to, or lack of, resources (or capital). Pierre Bourdieu, the famous sociologist, well known for his work on social class, describes capital in three forms – economic, social and cultural capital5. Having high levels of capital enables people to undertake higher or further education or leverage their networks to get a ‘foot in the door’, so you can see how capital and employability are closely related.  

Focusing on what individuals might ‘lack’ is called a deficit approach and in career development, efforts using this approach focus on helping people fill the gaps and acquire what they are missing, for example, encouraging people to attend networking events to increase a social network. This work and support is important, however, the deficit approach also means people from working class backgrounds, will be forever playing catch-up. 

As employer expectations increase, particularly for jobs like competitive graduate programs, the amount of extra running working class students need to do is also increasing – do an internship (or two), get involved with lots of extra-curricular activities, take on a leadership role, build your network, wear this, don’t wear that, be more confident, shake hands like this…the list goes on.  

So what do we do?
As career development practitioners we need to be mindful that not everyone has access to the same resources, including time. This means undertaking additional training or qualifications, or spending hours completing job applications will be harder for some people than others. Career practitioners can review the advice they might be giving to help-seekers, this could be as simple as asking yourself ‘is the suggestion I’m making likely to be accessible or available to everyone’?  

Most importantly however, I would encourage employers to take another look at selection criteria and definitions of merit. Merit looks benign on the surface but often hides class-based assumptions about ideal applicants. For example, mandating post-graduate qualifications or requiring applicants to complete lengthy, multi-stage recruitment processes will almost certainly rule out people without high levels of economic capital or the resource of time (i.e. many people from working class backgrounds).  

Conversations about social class are important and understanding the unique needs of people from working class backgrounds will improve the way we provide career help and support. For employers, this can mean increasing access to a much wider talent pool and having a more diverse workforce, which is good for everyone.  

I finish with this quote from my favourite working class champion, film director, Ken Loach. He might have just missed out on a recent BAFTA, but at 87 he has dedicated his life to represent working class people in film – that makes him a winner!

“(Change) won't come from people who have a lot to lose, it will come from people who will have everything to gain.”


1. ANU research
2. The research and rationale for asking the question ‘At age 14, what was the occupation of your main household earner’ is covered here
3. Lauren Rivera extensively covered class and access to elite roles in the USA here. It’s interesting reading and covers a lot of what I have looked at in my PhD. 
4. Class ceiling and class pay gap research by Sam Friedman and Daniel Laurison is a great place to start.  This book was recommended to me by Tristram Hooley: Friedman, S., Laurison, D. R. M., & Jstor. (2020). The class ceiling: why it pays to be privileged. Policy Press.
5. Bourdieu, P. (1990). In other words: essays towards a reflexive sociology. Polity Press.