New research uncovers ‘class pay gap’ in Britain’s professions

We have found evidence of a powerful and largely unacknowledged pay gap within the professions.
Crowds on Oxford Street. Chafleks CC

People from working class backgrounds who get a professional job are paid an average of £6,800 (17 per cent) less each year than colleagues from more affluent backgrounds, research for the Social Mobility Commission featuring LSE and University College London academics has revealed.

Using extensive data from the UK Labour Force Survey (LFS), Dr Sam Friedman and Dr Daniel Laurison of the Department of Sociology at LSE alongside academics from UCL, examined access to the professions and the impact of socio-economic background on earnings.

The report finds that access to Britain’s professions remains dominated by those from more privileged backgrounds. But even when people from working class backgrounds manage to break into a professional career, they face an earnings penalty compared to colleagues who come from better-off backgrounds.

Despite having the same education attainment, role and experience as their more privileged colleagues, the report finds that those from poorer backgrounds are still paid an average of £2,242 (seven per cent) less. Women and ethnic minorities face a ‘double’ disadvantage in earnings.

The authors find that Britain’s traditional professions such as medicine, law, journalism and academia remain dominated by those from advantaged backgrounds - nearly three quarters (73 per cent) of doctors are from professional and managerial backgrounds with less than 6 per cent from working class backgrounds.

Although technical professions such as engineering and many public sector professions like nursing have far more working class entrants, overall the odds of those from a professional or managerial family ending up in a professional or managerial job are 2.5 times higher than the odds for those from less advantaged backgrounds moving to the top.

Even if they get in to the professions working class entrants find it harder to get on.  The research finds that they do not go on to achieve the same earnings or levels of success. The report found the biggest class pay gaps exist in finance (£13,713), medicine (£10,218) and IT (£4,736).

The report says those from poorer backgrounds may be less likely to ask for pay rises, have less access to networks and work opportunities or, in some cases, exclude themselves from promotion for fear of not ‘fitting in’. Other explanations for the ‘class pay gap’ could include conscious or unconscious discrimination or more subtle employment processes which lead to ‘cultural matching’ in the workplace.

Dr Sam Friedman, Assistant Professor in Sociology at LSE, said: “While social mobility represents the norm, not the exception, in contemporary Britain, there is no doubt that strong barriers to opportunity still persist. By capitalising on new socio-economic background questions in the LFS, we have been able to shine a light on some of the most pressing, but largely unexplored issues in British society today.

“In particular, we have found evidence of a powerful and largely unacknowledged pay gap within the professions. There are a number of reasons for his such as higher educational attainment among the privileged. But even when these factors are taken into account, this gap remains significant.”

As well as examining social mobility in the top echelons of British society, the report also looks at rates of intergenerational worklessness. It concludes that there is no evidence of generations of families never working, but it finds that those from workless households are 15 to 18 per cent less likely to work.

The LFS is the largest survey of employment in the UK, with over 90,000 respondents.

Behind the article

A full copy of the report ‘Social Mobility, the Class Pay Gap and Intergenerational Worklessness: New Insights from the Labour Force Survey’ is available to download at:

The Rt. Hon Alan Milburn is chair of the Social Mobility Commission