Glenys Thornton CEO, Young Foundation, 11 November 2015
At our conference on Wednesday 11 November we celebrated the incredible contribution that Michael Young made to society and individuals in the UK, as well as looked forward to the work that still remains to be done in this unequal society.
We are still an unequal society. More unequal than Michael predicted in his ironic essay of 1958 – The Rise of The Meritocracy.
Writing as a somewhat more pompous version of himself in 2034 he shows how overweening a meritocracy could be.
This is what Michael said about his essay:
“If the rich and powerful were encouraged by the general culture to believe that they fully deserved all that they had, how arrogant they could become, and if they were convinced it was for the common good, how ruthless in their own advantage. Power corrupts and therefore the secret of a good society is that power should always be open to criticism. A good society should provide sinew for revolt as well as for power.”
Given the consensus that rising inequality and democratic disengagement represent a social and economic time bomb, today’s powerful elites, whether in politics, business or civil society must loosen their grip and open their minds. Look at the research that has been presented at the MY100 conference and in the last week by Prof. Mike Savage of the LSE.
Today’s elite, self-serving and exclusive meritocracy that Young predicted in 1958 is not only hindering mobility and equality it is actually making things worse. Equal opportunities simply won’t be delivered on the basis of merit if that merit only recognises and values the qualities and skills of a small group of rich, mostly white, mostly hetero-sexual men.
As a society it is critical we start to recognise and place much greater value and worth on a much wider range of people, and their skills. If we don’t, today’s evidence reflects Michael Young’s early insights – the further unravelling of our social fabric and economic potential will continue.
Our founder asked as far back as 1958 why we value some people and qualities more than others and was always driven by a vision of how much more as a society we could be.
Whatever your political position on the role of the state and market, we must all agree that unless we both support and work with communities to effect change and hear what they have to say, then current social and economic gulfs and problems will widen. We believe that our work today at the YF does exactly this – the good society has to be open to criticism and the good society has to be open to challenge and change from those who are not in the elite. So we are taking a deep breath and relaunching ourselves at the YF with renewed energy and vigour.
Our new YF partnership with the Mondragon Cooperative from the Basque country is not an accident and nice to have – although it is. The Mondragon Cooperative Corporation employs 75,000 people and their salary ratio is 1:8, compared with our 1:183 for British top corporations. Our Mondragon colleagues recognise that not only did they build a fantastic industrial business in a devastated part of Europe after the Spanish Civil War, but they transformed their society from top to bottom. The values and energy have created one of the most prosperous, best educated, democratic regions in the world. Mondragon represents the biggest and most tangible example of what social innovation can generate in the world. We need to understand why and how that happened, because there are some important lessons to be learned for all of us.
This partnership will have practical expression in the work we are doing in communities where we are working – Leeds, Sheffield, Montreal, Northern Ireland and Wales – and more to come.
Being both innovative and practical is what we do.
In Northern Ireland, co-creating social innovations that will tackle priorities identified through ethnographic research, allows us to establish a new open innovation platform that will create jobs and help to build a more equal place. It is the first time that a YF social innovation intervention integrates all the Foundation’s capabilities and talent in one particular community. We are confident that our work in our Places programme will influence urban policy to come.
And we must never forget the smaller innovations that can affect the quality of people’s lives in their neighbourhood. Which is why today we showcase our newest piece of research carried out with Sheffield University about the importance and place of benches – park benches in public places. I am confident that this work will influence local authorities’ practice for years to come.
At 29 when Michael was writing the Labour programme for the 1945 general election (which by the way he described as “nothing very visionary but practical”) the thing that resonates with me is what is not there. Michael’s proposal to have a child-centred society was vetoed by Herbert Morrison, so was not included in the Labour manifesto in 1945. And look how long it took for us to get the reduction in child poverty recognised as a measure of the success of economic policy, and the fight we have had to put the care and welfare of children at the heart of public policy.