Americans like to believe that the modern workplace, like school, is a meritocracy. Sure, some people have a lot of money and don’t have to work, but Americans prefer to believe that, among those who do work, side-by-side in the same environment, it’s a fair competition. To their chagrin, they observe that their co-workers from wealthy backgrounds advance three times as fast, and wonder what the hell is going on. Why does one person, no more skilled than any of his co-workers, advance so effortlessly because of who his daddy is?
I don’t intend to insinuate that companies or managers are knowingly being elitist. No company or manager would intentionally give favor to one who has already enjoyed so many external advantages, especially if that person’s level of talent did not merit it. People in offices are out for themselves, not trying to preserve (or to combat) the social status quo. Rather, this is a subconscious and irresistible force, and it comes from one root cause: rich kids don’t fear the boss. That’s extremely important.
Consider two analysts at a prestigious financial firm, both 24 years old and of equal drive, intelligence, and talent. One is from a double-income family in suburban Connecticut earning $125,000 per year– a decent sum by average standards, but less than the analysts hope to be making by 26. The other’s father is a hedge fund manager earning $10 million per year. Let’s also assume, for now, that none of their co-workers or managers know either analyst’s family background, except through their behavior. The middle-class kid spends the bulk of his time trying not to offend, not to behave in a way that might jeopardize the job he worked so hard to get and could not easily replace if he lost it. He doesn’t invite himself to meetings, avoids contact with high-ranking executives, and doesn’t offer suggestions when in meetings. Thanks to the fear he experiences on a daily basis, he’s seen as “socially awkward” and “mousy” by higher-ups. Nothing recommends him, and he will not advance.
Middle-class kids generally fuck up their first few years of the career game in one of two ways. Either they fear authority tremendously, which is crippling from a career perspective and renders them devoid of creative energy, or they show an open distaste for managerial authority, described by the wealthy as having a proletarian “chip” on one’s shoulder, and fail to advance on account of the dislike they thus inspire. Even when they are cognitively aware of how to manage authority, the stakes of the career game for a middle-class striver, who will fall into humiliation and possibly poverty if he fails it, are so severe that only the well-trained and steel-nerved few can prevent these calamitously high risks from, at least to some degree, disrupting their game.
The rich kid, on the other hand, relates even to the highest-ranking executives as equals, because he knows that they are his social equals. He’ll answer to them, but with an understanding that his subordination is limited and offered in exchange for mentoring and protection. He views them as partners and colleagues, not judges or potential adversaries. Perhaps this is counterintuitive, but most of his bosses like this. (Most bosses aren’t assholes and don’t like to be feared, at all. In fact, they’d be happy to forget that they are bosses.) His career advances fast. He’s “up and coming”. This occurs even if no one has any idea that he’s from a wealthy background.
The rich kid, fearless on account of not needing to keep his job, can effortlessly walk the middle path. He’s neither a cowering weakling who crumbles at the sight of authority, nor an obnoxious brat whose sense of entitlement and dislike for managerial authority limit his progress prematurely. He respects others and himself and has an uncanny air of effortless “coolness” (by which I mean freedom from anxiety) that enables him to actually get things done. It becomes common knowledge that he’s “up-and-coming”, a rising star in his company. Even if his performance is smack-average or somewhat below, his effortless rise will not be deterred. It is assumed. With that advantage, he can concentrate on actually getting work done, yet another uncommon advantage.
This “middle path” between self-defeat and entitled arrogance is narrow– a tightrope, metaphorically speaking. It is, I should note, of equal width and tension for both rich and poor. There is no intentional preference given to one class over the other. The difference is that children of wealth traverse it at a height of one meter over a mattress, while the middle-class and poor traverse it at a height of 20 meters over a lava pit.
Thus, I have described the inevitable advantages the children of wealth hold in the career game. This assumes that there is no knowledge of their economic standing. The rich kid, even when no one knows that he is rich, still wins. He has the right air about him, and the same freedom from anxiety and free-flowing creative energy of a college student because, for him, college (i.e. the time of life in which most middle-class peoples’ lives peak) never ended. His entry-level job is not a place of stress, but a continuation of school; a place where he can learn and grow.
If the employees’ economic situations were known, it might be expected that some advantage would be conferred to the industrious “striver” from the middle class. In practice, this isn’t really true. While the worst scions of wealth, rich brats as seen in documentaries like Born Rich, disgust people and generally negate the advantages conferred by their social capital; the majority of rich kids who are well-behaved and decent are valued more highly when their circumstances are discovered. In practice, one finds that people would rather gain the connections and favors available to the rich than satisfy any small sense of altruism by extending benefits to the hard-working middle and lower classes.
What’s more, the attitude shown to the wealthy in the workplace is one of appreciation. Consider the example above, of two fairly identical analysts in a high-stress financial job, and assume that their familial economic standings are known (as is usually the case). The middle-class analyst is assumed to be there because he likes the money. This doesn’t endear him to anyone, and if he asks his boss why he isn’t getting his way in project allocation or career advancement, he can be given a reply like, “That’s why we pay you the big bucks.” (If he responds justly to that comment and makes its issuer a better person, he’ll be summarily fired and, if this action earns him a reputation, unemployable.) Such an insulting reply, except with gauche irony, would never be given to his counterpart, if his economic standing were known. By contrast, as it’s known that the rich kid has no need to work, he is appreciated for doing so. He is assumed (unlike the middle-class striver) to have a strong work ethic just because he shows up sober to work every day. He doesn’t have to go over the top to establish that he has a decent work ethic; that he is working at a level of reliability taken for granted from his middle-class counterparts is taken to prove his work ethic and stamina.
This advantage held by the wealthy, more prominent on the East Coast and outside of technology, is nearly impossible to compete against in most companies. I wouldn’t advise a person even to try. “Faking rich” is going to lead a person to seem pathetic and materialistic, not refined and free of anxiety. Moreover, feigning the cavalier attitude toward executive authority that rich kids hold effortless is very dangerous if one lacks the requisite social skills. Overdone, it can lead quickly to the unemployment line.
For the individual, I can offer no personal solution to this deep sociological problem. As far as I know, there’s none. I would advise those who are sufficiently talented to work in technology, which tends to be more meritocratic than other industries, and to avoid old-style business. Beyond that, I know of no solution.
So why did I write this essay, if I can offer no solution? First, it’s because I believe my generation will overthrow the arbitrary and brutal authority of corporate capitalism and bigoted conservatism in favor of rationalistic, libertarian socialism driven by a scientific approach and a concern for universal social justice, and I want to encourage this to happen. If I raise awareness of a defective and unfair situation, perhaps I can encourage people to change it. Second: although this is one of corporate capitalism’s milder flaws, leading a multitude to moderate disappointment but with little-to-no acute danger or loss of life, a rising awareness of the career game’s unfairness might result in less energy wasted, across the whole of society, attempting to ascend the proverbial “corporate ladder”. Establishing that a gambling house provides only rigged games is the first step toward depriving it of players, and therefore setting in motion the first stages of its destruction.