To coincide with the University of Nottingham’s debate about the state of meritocracy in contemporary Britain (24 October 2018), CEO Helen Goulden shares her thoughts and asks…
What has merit?
Anyone who takes an interest in history, or likes reading about life lived at different times, will know as well as most, that there is a certain inevitability to the rise and fall of ideologies, regimes, and orthodoxies.
I hold perhaps an uncontroversial view, that the transition from an aristocracy to a meritocracy was an inevitable unfolding of our society. The Northcote-Trevelyan report (1853) which opened up civil servant jobs to competition was a recognition – one that then manifested across business and industry – that we needed many, many more educated people in our workforce if we were to advance in a world that was opening up as a competitive economy. The rise of a meritocracy was as inevitable as a future conversation about its declining merits.
Hierarchies of any kind, whether they are of intelligence, or strength or wealth are problematic. They assume there is more below than above. They require a form of contract, a conveyance of the legitimacy of authority from the many to the few in order to be stable. Tensions are knitted into hierarchies however they are formulated.
And so meritocracy, on the face of it, would initially seem to be one of the least worst ways of formulating a hierarchy, because it is based on the assumption that those who extend their efforts and apply their intelligence – whoever they are – are worthy and deserving of taking their varying senior positions in the professions, industry and public office.
That’s why Michael Young’s choice of satire as the medium to convey the consequences of a mature meritocracy was entirely the right one. And Paul Barker put it well when he said that ‘satirists always fire their best arrows at targets they once saw the attraction of’.
Young certainly wanted to see the creation of a society where all people were able to pursue their talents and succeed in fulfilling their potential as human beings – as much as he felt the eschatological ripples of how our meritocracy would unfold over time. He predicted that a mature meritocracy would lead to calcification of a new ruling elite, one more pernicious than had gone before, because of this notion of it being ‘deserved’ – and so there being a justification for it being held on to – and that people would ultimately turn away from that new class, against the meritocratic elite; after feeling shut out and devalued.
Young also predicted this would lead to a surge in populism, rising nationalism – and a rebellion led by women. That prediction has a compelling logic today; to assume that it is solely by dint of our pursuit of a meritocracy, which has caused our present inequalities and shifting political sands.
But I think it’s more multi-layered than that.
Arguably, what we see now in the UK and across Europe, is as much about the collective and continuous anxiety that derives from feeling threatened – whether existentially, economically or culturally – that is also contributing towards rising nationalism, and attracting us towards leaders with simple and certain answers – who claim to speak for us and create foes for us.
The evolution of our digital technologies and social media could also not be designed better to perpetuate these things either. An online world created by binary code; that has manifested alongside a more binary form of politics and society. Putting meritocracy in perspective today is more complex than ever before.
Despite being a continued subject for much challenge, debate and criticism in some spheres, the idea that if you work hard and you’ve got a head on your shoulders, you will be successful has persisted as a publicly told story. It’s the age-old story of the hero. Of success being all about you as an individual and your efforts in succeeding or overcoming adversity.
I think that is debilitating as it is empowering a message. The trends we’re seeing don’t support that kind of story of mobility for many people – certainly not outside the cities in this country.
Our debates about meritocracy have also become overly confined to the education system. While there is absolutely no doubt that the quality and extent of an education has a material and often lifetime impact on an individual, there are two massive problems with boxing our conversations about meritocracy into one of schooling for attainment.
Getting on in life is only partly about your classroom experiences.
If you’re hungry, generally not eating well, living in a household that is experiencing sustained financial stress and all of the challenges that come with that – if you’re living in poverty, in other words, as over four million children in this country are, you don’t do as well at school.
While increases in the national minimum wage have had positive benefits, if you’re in low paid work, you’re still not that likely to progress out of it, no matter how hard you work. Collective bargaining has also decreased across the board. Precarious, insecure work has increased – as Michael Young also predicted – although he called it serfdom.
The geographic polarisation of our local economies across the country, even how the choices that are made in planning our transport infrastructure, also directly affect your chances of being able to find good work and an affordable place to live. The private rented sector has without question become the home of the poor and in this largely un-professionalised market, one in seven tenants is paying more than half of their income in rent.
That’s got nothing to do with hard work and intelligence. These are structural inequalities and geographic imbalances. Not just North and South but between cities, and the towns and places outside cities.
All of the top ten places where you see the greatest social mobility are cities. Most of the places where you see the lowest social mobility are not. The intensive and rapid growth of cities across the world, creating concentric circles of wealth around a few small square miles, has been accepted as the inevitable and desirable and central organising principle of a civilisation. And so difficult to challenge convincingly, perhaps. But it cannot be in our long-term interests as a small island to intensively grow and invest in a small handful of cities; and expect the spoils to naturally flow beyond their boundaries.
The issue of geography may well lie at the heart of the debate about meritocracy, as it lies at the heart of the underlying sore of discontent that unfolded as a result of the EU referendum. The new elite born of a meritocracy could be argued as being as much about the marriage of social norms and networks to accessing resources in certain localities across the country, as it is of a marriage of two IQ’s.
Any abstracted conversation about education being the driver of a meritocratic society, without attending to place, and place-based policies and systems, our ageing towns, the geographic distribution of jobs, housing, the decentralisation of power, and attention to the successive sedimentary layers of history that lie unevenly across all of different towns, cities and places across the UK, means we are only having half a conversation.
We must also think about technology and its impact on equality of education, skills development, later life re-training and mass unemployment that we are told will arise as the result of automation of types of industry and jobs. Unless pestilence, war or climate change don’t knock us back into the dark ages first, the probability of a class of people augmented and modified through genetics and technology – or otherwise exploiting artificial intelligence is perhaps quite high. Equally, unless something very extraordinary happens to us, the probability of that same technological advancement being used to create a more equal society – is perhaps quite low.
It’s difficult to imagine a future world where people who are advantaged don’t continue to outpace those with less advantage.
That is not by any means to be defeatist, it’s not to say efforts to tackle discrimination, inequalities and bias of all kinds, whether associated with class, geography race or ethnicity should not be a driving priority, but it is to try and open up space for a different perspective on that nature of the problem.
Which is to say that the answer to the woes of an ageing and failing meritocracy, may not simply be to beat the drum of more meritocracy. But to ask ourselves – what has merit?
So, what do we value?
The meritocratic equation IQ + Effort is peculiarly valueless and amoral. It doesn’t speak of purpose, or intent, or effort directed with what sense of responsibility. And the unit of our focus is individual. The effort is individual, the rewards are individual.
In an early meritocracy, the positive benefits for previously disenfranchised parts of the population did not require the equation to explicitly carry or represent any deeper values or moral purpose.
The mobilisation of a meritocracy in and of itself in its early days has positive benefits enough on the general well-being of a broader base of the population; through an increasing flow of access to education, rising incomes for more households, increased health care for all those economic human resources. We saw all this in the 20th Century and the attendant rise in social mobility. But those days seem to be over.
Here it is perhaps the place to quote the fictional Chelsea Manifesto, written by Michael Young as countering cry to the prevailing dominance of a meritocratic society. He said (and I paraphrase a little) that we might all live in society that both possessed and acted upon plural values. Where we evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination, sympathy and generosity.
It’s so easy to read that and scoff. What on earth does kindliness and generosity mean in a 21st Century economy? How fluffy it sounds. How impossible to evaluate those qualities. Where is the wealth created through exhibiting such characteristics? But when you start to look more closely, this doesn’t look quite so alien, nor so fluffy. Parts of our economy and society are heading this way already.
The current political and economic turbulence, insecurity and upheaval may stand against the idea but there is some hope to assume that change in this direction may be more likely to come about than not. Not just because we aspire to be something better, something good; we’ve always wanted that, however fumbling and failing our efforts. But because that ethical impulse to be good, to understand what it means to live a good life, that values more human characteristics than intelligence, is now beginning to combine with some very material needs for us, as a collective, to preserve and advance ourselves.
Because in truth, we’re not very well. You only need listen to people in communities across the country talk about their experiences to know that some feel highly devalued, that they have no merit; that we’re failing as a national community.
One only needs look at statistics on loneliness, social isolation and poor mental health, to get a get a sense of the consequential losses of a more individualistic society, where we have categorised and rewarded some individual’s success and work as having merit, and others as having none.
We only have to look at a small selection of the ‘hockey stick’ graphs that show mass extinctions, loss of marine life, increasing global temperatures to feel acutely, albeit too fleetingly, that as human beings we are approaching, if not already in, real trouble. Often we talk about it being ‘the planet’ that’s in trouble. But of course, the planet is us. And Elon won’t be letting you on his spaceship. This much we can guarantee.
Yet, in among all of this, we’re reaching, sometimes unconsciously, in different ways to give merit and value to other things; other qualities of life; beginning to try and quantify and legitimise measuring what matters to us.
Over the last years, we’ve seen the development of new measures such as National Well-being Indices, Quality of Life Surveys, the Thriving Places Index and the like. The Young Foundation’s well-being work is another example, attempting to capture not individual, but community well-being.
Connectedness within and across different communities, mutual aid, fraternity, social forms of innovation, creativity, kindness for others are increasingly notions that are finding their voice.
I believe we are re-awakening ourselves to this. In communities where people know each other a bit more, you see less crime. You see people more likely to be in good health; you see reduced hospital admissions; you see higher degrees of capability to respond and adapt to unpredicted events, things that are good outcomes in and of themselves for communities, and they seem to make us a bit happier as individuals.
In business, we see change in this direction too, around the edges, which is of course where all radical change starts. The UK has been quietly growing a particularly vibrant and advanced social economy; with rising numbers of community-owned businesses, co-operatives mission led business and social enterprises that are aligning revenue generation with social and environmental purpose and broadening ownership of value in an economic system.
This is supported by an ever-growing flow of social finance that only will support businesses that can demonstrate real, positive and lasting contributions to communities and society. These are examples of valuing different things; changing what is deemed to have merit.
My generation and earlier has, in quite primitively Frankenstein-like ways, tried to stitch social purpose and environmental impact on to business as usual strategies.
The next generations saw and see that for what it is; which is not enough, poorly executed. Many young people want social purpose and meaning to be entwined in their lives and work. And they are more likely than other generations want to see proper action taken on climate change. And why wouldn’t they?
They have to live with what’s coming to them. That ethical impulse to value other things, is tied to a material, existential need to do just that.
The ability to collaborate with others, to be able to empathise and communicate with lots of different kinds of people, to be creative and solve problems together, these attributes and competencies are making their way into our education system too; slowly. Rising in importance globally as core competencies, which can and should be taught.
Whether this is because we will be increasingly a nation of carers to our ageing population or because of the kinds of jobs that can’t be automated, these are perhaps the more material reasons we are beginning to see institutions, policies and manifestos that place far greater value on empathy, sociability, creativity and other quite distinctly human, good, qualities.
The emergence of a new, evolved ocracy – one that values the collective strength and power of community and belonging, that rewards and values those groups who create social value, and who create multiple forms of wealth and well-being isn’t a utopian ideal.
And it isn’t only going to come about because we think it’s the good or right course of action but because regardless of Brexit (but particularly if we find ourselves adrift from Europe) we’re not really going to be able to get along without it.