Jessi Streib is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. She is the author of three books: The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages, Privilege Lost: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall: Who Leaves the Upper Middle Class and How They Fall, and The Accidental Equalizer: How Luck Determines Pay After College. Her work can be viewed on her website:  Follow her on Twitter @JessiStreib

Below I interview Dr. StreiB:

AM: What is “luckocracy” and how does it work?

Book cover of The Accidental Equalizer by Jessi Streib

A luckocracy is an opportunity structure that awards outcomes based upon luck. By basing outcomes on luck, it does not base them upon class. And so people from unequal class backgrounds receive equal chances to get ahead.

AM: How does hidden job information and class neutrality work to level the playing field?

The luckocracy is formed by two joint pillars: hidden information about where and how to get ahead, and class-neutral selection criteria. Hidden information forces people from each class background to guess where and how to get ahead, and class-neutral selection criteria mean that their guesses have the same chance of paying off. In this way, luck shapes outcomes because guessing well is what gets people ahead, not class or the resources associated with it.

The luckocracy operates in the mid-tier business labor market: the labor market for business majors from non-elite universities hired to do jobs such as tracking inventory, monitoring marketing campaigns, overseeing payroll, recruiting workers, and managing projects. In this labor market, information about where to get ahead is hidden: most candidates don’t know what jobs pay until they get an offer since this information isn’t in job ads, revealed in interviews, or knowable to students’ connections. Information about how to get ahead is also hidden from students of all classes and their connections. Students know the general competencies that hiring agents seek but don’t know how the person evaluating them defines or evaluates those competencies. Are strong communication skills shown through speaking concisely or giving thorough answers? If employers are looking for leadership and teamwork, should students talk about their accomplishments by saying “I” or “we”? Hiring agents often feel strongly about these issues, but students don’t know their criteria, and so have to guess how to present themselves to each evaluator.

At the same time, hiring agents in this labor market tend to use class-neutral criteria. They often have a low bar of employability, one that students from all classes can meet. So they look for interns who have done anything in the past—worked, joined a club, or volunteered. They look for recent hires who can answer their questions while not demeaning their teammates, swearing, or wearing ripped clothes. They also don’t care how high over their bar students go. If they want students with internship experience, three internships may not be better than one. If they want students with at least a 3.0 GPA, a 4.0 is no better than a 3.0. They also don’t care where students learn their skills, whether from working at McDonald’s, singing in a church choir, or leading an exclusive club. They ignore signs of prestige regarding where students interned, focusing on what students did and learned instead. They define their criteria in class-neutral ways too. “Polish” can mean not chewing gum, yawning, and avoiding too many “ums.” “Fit” can mean being outgoing or reserved, depending on the position, or showing integrity. And when employers do use class-biased criteria, they tend to use standards that favor each group. So the hiring agent who looks for students in Greek life might also look for students who pay for college themselves, with the first criteria favoring the advantaged and the second the disadvantaged. Then, of course, applying for jobs is free, and employers cover most expenses related to interviewing. Finally, many employers refuse to negotiate over pay with recent college graduates, neutralizing any difference that may arise from class-advantaged students’ greater propensity to negotiate.

In this situation, class-advantaged students’ higher GPAs and greater internship experience don’t give them a leg up. Students from all classes earn high enough GPAs and often intern once, and differences beyond that are ignored. Class-advantaged students’ status symbols don’t help them; they’re ignored too. Their connections to professionals don’t get them higher pay either. Because information about where and how to get ahead is hidden from their connections too, the people they talk to advise them to prepare for interview questions that are never asked, recommend answers that aren’t what evaluators prefer, and get them jobs that are just as often low-paying as high-paying. Indeed, in a luckocracy, more advantaged students’ resources don’t help them, and students from all classes end up in the same place: needing to guess where and how to get ahead, with the highest pay going to those who happen to guess the best.

AM: What are the implications of your findings for the future of higher education and the middle class?

My findings provide another argument against college being the great equalizer. Not only do they not equalize admission into college, but they don’t equalize the resources needed to get a job. Instead, it’s the luckocracy that exists within the labor market that is the great equalizer.

Many employers only admit students into the luckocracy with a college degree. This should change; many entry-level jobs don’t require skills that students learned in college. But as long as employers hire college graduates for these jobs, colleges can get closer to becoming an equalizer by graduating more students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will let them enter the true great equalizer, the luckocracy.

Alicia M. Walker, Ph.D. is an associate professor at Missouri State University. Her research focuses on intimate relationships, gender, sexual behavior and identity, closeted behaviors, and online initiation of sexual relationships.