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Perceived Social Status Can Impact Your Job Search

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
Freelance Editor
Business News Daily Staff
Updated Mar 11, 2020

How big is your network?

  • While we hate to compare ourselves to others, we often are affected by our own perceptions of ourselves in comparison to others when it comes to work.
  • The idea that our own socioeconomic status holds us back can even affect our ability to retain certain jobs or pursue a different job.
  • There are ways that human resources professionals can help employees combat this sense of imposter syndrome.

People’s perceptions of their own socioeconomic status may contribute to their employment status, according to research from a 2012 study.

What are the five social classes?

In the United States, there are five different social classes, according to Lumen Learning. These are upper class, upper middle class, lower middle class, working class and lower class. They are based on a few different factors including education, income and employment.

Upper-class people usually have their Ph.D. or other professional degrees in medicine or law. Typically, these people are chief executives at their companies, or could even be in politics. They are classified as making more than $100,000 a year.

Upper-middle-class people are thought to have a graduate degree when it comes to education. They are business professionals who make between $70,000 and $100,000 a year.

Lower-middle-class people are professional support staff and salespeople who have their bachelor’s degree. They make between $30,000 and $70,000 a year.

Working-class people can be thought of as the blue-collar and clerical group. They might have an associate’s degree, or have some college courses. Usually, they bring in about $10,000 to $30,000 annually.

The lower class is the unemployed or underemployed group. They could be working part time, but usually have a high school education or a GED. They make less than $10,000 a year.

What defines social class?

Education within the classes ranges from those who obtained a high school diploma to those who earned a graduate degree in college. While education can obviously affect what people know, it also affects people from a social perspective. When people in the office introduce themselves to one another, they often will ask where they went to school. When people who do not have degrees get asked this question, it can be uncomfortable. This could be because they wished they had a degree, or a degree was technically required for the job they have.

Income is often not talked about and is considered more of a taboo subject. However, income is obvious in many ways. From taking more vacations to working overtime in order to pay bills, the lifestyle many lead is often indicative of their income. For example, you would not assume that people in the lower class could afford their three annual European vacations. You also would not likely assume that higher class people would be living in studio apartments in a less developed part of town. However, people do not always live the assumed lifestyle of their incomes. Their self-perceptions often are used as a way to cover up their realities. For example, a person with a high school diploma might try to prove themselves to their coworkers by wearing brand new clothes to fit in with others in the office. Additionally, according to Executive Style, the CEO of your company might drive an older car in order to save money.

The last variable for social classes is employment. People often treat themselves and others differently based on the titles of their work positions. For example, when the president of your company walks in, you might feel the need to carry yourself a different way by keeping your back straight, shaking their hand or even standing up when they enter a room. If you are a janitor, you might feel like you are unseen or unrecognized for all of your efforts.

While social classes are obvious, they often should be thrown to the side so people can see others for their abilities and not their circumstances. While shifting the idea that social classes should exist will likely be a difficult task, there are a variety of circumstances that come with believing that you are lesser than others in your office or in the job market.

People who view themselves as members of a lower social class may have a harder time getting a job. The problem is that unemployed people who perceive themselves as being in a low class might picture themselves as having smaller, less diverse networks than they actually do, hurting their chances of finding employment, research shows.

The study by University of Michigan professor Ned Smith revealed that when threatened with the loss of a job, people who thought of themselves as having a low social status viewed their social and professional networks as small as and denser than they actually are. The pattern among high-status people was just the opposite, with high-status business professionals imagining their networks as being larger and more diverse than they actually are in reality.

Smith said people who perceive themselves to have low status create a frustrating cycle by mentally cutting off the network ties that might be the most valuable to them.

“They feel threatened, reach deeper inside their network, limit their access to information on new opportunities, and feel further threatened,” Smith said. “That has real implications during a financial crisis when instances of job loss increase.”

The research also has implications for human resource professionals charged with laying off employees.

“When a company is laying off folks, something as simple as reminding people that they have a network full of resources, or encouraging them to cast a wide net could help counterbalance this effect,” Smith said. “Job counselors might steer them toward LinkedIn and Facebook to mobilize their old connections and make sure they access all the information out there.”

Smith’s paper, titled “Status Differences in the Cognitive Activation of Social Networks,” was co-authored by Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. It appears in the January-February edition of the journal Organization Science.

Image Credit:

fizkes / Getty Images

Adam Uzialko
Adam Uzialko
Business News Daily Staff
Adam Uzialko is a writer and editor at and Business News Daily. He has 7 years of professional experience with a focus on small businesses and startups. He has covered topics including digital marketing, SEO, business communications, and public policy. He has also written about emerging technologies and their intersection with business, including artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, and blockchain.