The final piece in our three-part series of guest blogs exploring what lies beyond the meritocracy?
David Goodhart, journalist and author:
Meritocracy is the worst system in the world for distributing status, responsibility and rewards, apart from all the others, to paraphrase Churchill on democracy.
If one’s main priority is the efficient running of society, then ‘IQ plus effort’ is a better selection criterion for high-status jobs than nepotism. But it does not necessarily make society any fairer or more humane.
Meritocratic selection systems sharply divide winners from losers, while giving the latter little or no psychological protection from their failure. And as Michael Young pointed out 60 years ago in his critique of meritocracy, people blessed with advanced analytical/cognitive skills may well feel less obligation to those of below average intelligence, than the rich felt traditionally to the poor.
For most of human history (including in the 1950s when Young was writing), cognitive ability was scattered more or less randomly through society, with only a small minority attending university or similar elite academies. But in recent decades, a huge sorting process has taken place, in which all the young exam-passers have been hoovered up and sent in unprecedented numbers into higher education. In Britain, there has been a 400 per cent increase in student numbers since 1990. (This has coincided with a sharp decline in the prestige of so much non-graduate employment.)
That does not mean that we now live in a true meritocracy. The private school domination of high-status jobs has actually weakened somewhat in recent decades but family income in childhood still correlates very highly with educational and career success. This has been reinforced by something known by the ugly phrase ‘assortative mating’, which describes the fact that people in high-status jobs, requiring high cognitive ability, are far more likely to have children with similar people.
The children of these couples do not (yet) form a genetic elite of the highly able, but they are far more likely to be brought up by two parents who are both well connected and understand what is required for children of even middling ability to enter good universities and obtain higher professional jobs. The result is the emergence of a kind of hereditary meritocracy.
Young’s book is more relevant today than when it was written. That is because one form of human aptitude, cognitive ability, has become even more the gold standard of human esteem. And as cognitive ability has risen in esteem we have seen a relative decline in the esteem attached to other aptitudes—manual/technical skill, caring and nurturing qualities, character and virtuous behaviour, experience, simple hard work. Moreover, the social institutions that used to value you for just being you—such as the family, the church and the nation—have all been in relative decline since the 1950s.
A successful society must manage the tension between the inequality of esteem that arises from relatively open competition for highly skilled jobs and the ethos of equality of esteem that flows from democratic citizenship.
That means a democratic achievement society that wants to avoid widespread disaffection must sufficiently respect and reward those of middling and lower cognitive ability, and provide meaning and value for people who cannot — or do not want to — achieve in the examination room and career market.
For many people on the left, this is mainly a problem of income and wealth inequality. But inequality has not, in fact, been rising in many of the countries, including Brexit Britain, where there has been the biggest push-back against the cognitive elites. It is true that slow or non-existent wage growth is harder to bear when a small minority, most notably bankers, seem insulated from austerity. But this misses an even bigger story about esteem and how valued people feel in the social order.
Just as the move from an agrarian to an industrial society produced various traumas, so the move from an industrial to a post-industrial one is producing different traumas today — less challenging materially but at least as challenging psychologically.
It is worth recalling that industrial society did not destroy traditional religious belief. Indeed, the new urban centres created new forms of mass Christianity such as Methodism. Nor did it destroy the family, levels of illegitimacy in England fell in the course of the 19th century. Moreover, it also created new collective class identities and forms of recognition associated with the dignity of labour.
Indeed, it may be that industrial society was better at distributing status than our emerging post-industrial society. The latter with its characteristic individualism and secularism, at least in the west, appears to be in the process of diminishing many traditional roles, group attachments, sources of unconditional recognition (family, religion, nation) and geographic rootedness.
Add to that the relentless stress on meritocracy and the failure to protect the status of the less successful and it is hardly surprising that a political counter-reaction has emerged.
So how can these damaging trends of the meritocratic achievement society be slowed or reversed? The simple answer is that there is nothing after the meritocracy. Meritocracy in some imperfect form, distorted by the advantages that parents will always be able to pass on to their children, will always be with us.
The attempt to spread status more evenly in society is indeed a quasi-utopian project — is not status a zero-sum game? — and it will not happen swiftly or even mainly through policy changes. But we can choose a direction of travel that will help to mitigate the negative effects of meritocracy, above all by raising the status of aptitudes other than cognitive ability, which can look after itself.
And there are some promising trends, many of them quite mainstream. There is, for example, a growing recognition that those citadels of cognitive power, the universities, have expanded too fast and too many school leavers attend them. The government has recently been focussing much more on the 50 per cent who don’t go to university and labour market pressure, especially after Brexit, is set to improve the training, pay and status of many manual and technical occupations.
After years of being brain-washed into thinking that the path to achievement and security for their children ran only through A levels and a good university—many of Britain’s parents, and their children, are beginning to see other options as equally promising.
There are other, rather familiar, policy ideas that can help to mitigate the meritocracy.
Reviving the old idea of the “dignity of labour” to help raise the status of the 10m-plus jobs that are described as low skill is feasible albeit difficult, but it will only have meaning if we continue to raise the minimum wage. Many of the best employers, like the car insurance company Admiral, have shown that even jobs like working in a call centre can be rewarding and meaningful.
Another is place. Too many places in Britain have lost their purpose and their status and therefore wave goodbye to most of their ambitious people. Many would like to stay if there were decent prospects for them. Vigorous regional policy combined with spreading more national assets, cultural institutions and government departments, around the country and out of London can help.
Strengthening the support mechanisms of the family and valuing the work that is done in the private realm, mainly by women, in nurturing children and giving them a sense of their value is essential to a post-meritocratic society.
This connects to the single most important aspect of meritocracy mitigation and that is raising the status (and pay) of caring roles, both paid and unpaid.
There is already a broad consensus that caring roles in the social care system and nursing are grossly undervalued and underpaid but, to date, insufficient pressure on politicians to do something about it.
I believe that will gradually change partly because of the increased political power of women, as illustrated by the #MeToo movement. But it may require modern feminism to change its focus. In recent years mainstream feminism has had an androgynous flavour (men and women are not only equal but essentially the same) focusing on the public realm and equal competition with men.
More support for the family and traditional female aptitudes of care and nurture has been regarded by many feminists, though not I think by most women, as reactionary. But it is possible that a more pluralistic and family-friendly form of feminism may develop that can genuinely respect the goals and ambitions of both public and private realm focussed women.
It was women in Michael Young’s book who led the revolt against the meritocracy, in real life it is women who are central to mitigating its worst effects.
To mark the 60 years since Michael Young’s seminal work ‘The Rise of the Meritocracy’ was published, the Young Foundation ran a competition inviting people to submit their answers the question: What lies beyond the meritocracy? The winner will be announced in October 2018.