Why playing down a privileged background might be a savvy career move

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Are you privileged? If so, how privileged?

Maybe the issue makes you prickle with discomfort, as it did when two professors asked a former senior partner at a magic circle law firm.

Acknowledging his “classic upper-middle class” background, he nonetheless played up his family’s successes as down to their own merits; notably his great-grandfather, who rose from “humble beginnings in rural Scotland to eventually become the president of one of the Royal Colleges for medical professionals in the United Kingdom”.

The lawyer did not see himself as part of the elite, but rather the product of a new meritocratic era. “The City has changed enormously,” he told the authors of a forthcoming book, Born to Rule: The Making and Remaking of the British Elite. “Undoubtedly, if you go back a generation before mine, there were a number of people who became partners who would never have [made it without] connections”.

Intentional or not, such a strategy to downplay a privileged background might prove a savvy career move: it can focus attention on an individual’s talents and make them more agreeable to others.

Authors Aaron Reeves, professor of social policy at Oxford university and Sam Friedman, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics, studied the historical database of Who’s Who and recently spoke with 144 leading professionals, including FTSE 100 chiefs, politicians, and newspaper editors, to understand their backgrounds.

They found many were keen to stress that their progression in life was due to their own skill. In part, they did so, like the lawyer, by caricaturing the past as one where jobs were offered via nods and winks between a small circle of Old Boys.

Certainly, recent efforts to professionalise recruitment in financial, legal and consultancy sectors, particularly in the early career phase, would suggest a change from previous generations. A report for Progress Together, a non-profit organisation promoting socio-economic diversity in financial services, found “much effort is taking place to diversify access to the sector”. However, it pointed out that 89 per cent of people in top jobs — senior manager and above — were still from a higher socio-economic background by parental occupation.

Even so, people are keen to play up their own ordinariness, both in tastes and origins.

In one experiment quoted in Born to Rule, the authors asked participants to advise a fictitious friend, who had been appointed CEO of a FTSE 250 company, which elements of her background she should include in her profile. More than 86 per cent said she should mention a grandfather who worked in a mine, 63 per cent said to include her headteacher father, while only 38 per cent suggested she cite her private school education.

British attitudes to class are famously weird. When Victoria Beckham described her background as “very working class” in last year’s Netflix documentary, her footballer husband pushed back, telling her to “be honest”. She finally admits her dad used to drive her to school in a Rolls-Royce. Posh Spice is hardly alone. According to one survey, nearly a quarter of people in the UK with middle class jobs and backgrounds “see themselves as working class”. To hear the complaints from parents about the Labour government’s plans to add VAT to private school fees, you could imagine that Harrow and Winchester exclusively educated the offspring of cleaners and retail workers, so vehement are their claims to be just one academic term away from poverty.

Meanwhile, the new British prime minister, Sir Keir Starmer, has had to remind everyone he is the son of a working class toolmaker because he has been attacked for being out of touch, given he is now sitting so comfortably in the middle classes as a knighted barrister from north London.

In part, the magic circle lawyer’s self-image as one with humble roots stems from everything being relative. There is always another rung to be climbed on the career ladder, a peer who possesses a bigger yacht, or country pile.

But it would seem that appearing less privileged pays dividends. In other surveys, people rated a privileged academic as less deserving of their position than an equally qualified one with a more modest background, while a CEO with highbrow tastes was deemed less sympathetic than one who liked going to the pub.

This explains why the Reform party’s Nigel Farage cultivates his image as a pint-drinking bloke — though it took some chutzpah to declare that losing his account at Coutts, the royal family’s bank, last year made him the posterboy of the unbanked.

Deflecting privilege matters, Friedman told me, because “it perpetuates the myth of meritocracy”. That doesn’t mean those at the top lack skills or talent, but it does suggest, in Britain at least, that stories of humble origins should be taken with a lump of salt.

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