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The delusion of meritocracy

PSW reviews Radio 4's Start of the Week on Meritocracy and inequality...

Review: Professional Social Work magazine, 8 September 2020

If, like me, you are still outraged (at my age it’s more disappointment) at the unfairness of the world then Radio 4’s Start the Week on Meritocracy and inequality is for you.

The programme blows apart the myth of the meritocratic society that we in the democratic West deceive ourselves to live in. Much like the American dream, it crumbles quickly under scrutiny.

Indeed, a troublesome fault line of the meritocratic society was pointed out by the very person who coined the phrase – sociologist and founder of the Open University Michael Young.

While seeing it as an advancement on aristocratic systems, Young recognised the danger of those who make it to the top in a meritocracy looking down on those who don’t. They view their ‘success’ as just reward for their efforts.

The converse of this is that those who don’t make it are seen as authors of their own misfortune – they just didn’t try hard enough.

Any analysis of this shows how wrong it is. For to paraphrase George Orwell, we’re all born equal, but some are born more equal than others. By dint of family, wealth, geography, class, race and educational opportunities some have a head start.

The delusion of the meritocratic society ignores this. At its worst it leads to the ‘get on your bike’ mentality that allowed pinstriped yuppies to step over homeless people while yapping on their over-sized mobile phones during the 80s.

More recently it’s the same attitude that saw TV channels broadcast poverty porn programmes such as Benefits Street while austerity measures were being rolled out making life hardest for the poorest.

This ‘hubris’ of the successful, as political philosopher Michael Sandel, a guest on the show, calls it, “contributed to the polarisation that drives society apart and plays out in our politics”.

It can be linked to the rise of populism in Western democracies with populist politicians offering an alternative route out from self-blame for misfortune by finding other targets in exchange for votes.

The likes of Donald Trump or Nigel Farage don’t want to tear down the system, far from it. But they have both taken the age-old – and dangerous – road of presenting populist scapegoats to people's (often understandable) resentments. Immigrants or Brussel bureaucrats, for example.

The programme has the most to say about the injustice of our education system. Personally, I have always thought the inequality of it is one of the biggest scandals of British society. A system that should be a vehicle of opportunity for all is anything but. Instead, it too readily promotes existing inequalities through a patchwork of private and grammar schools and a postcode lottery that sees well-off parents move into the catchment areas of the best performing schools.

The programme highlights how gaining a place at university has become the Holy Grail of the middleclasses, fuelled by a view that a capital of “cognitive abilities” is what their children need to get on in life.

As a result, childhood has been turned into a Darwinist struggle which middleclass “helicopter parents” are inevitably more likely to win because, to misquote Orwell again, some people have more opportunity than others.

Those that don’t go to university are made to feel to have not succeeded because cognitive capital has become so closely linked to status. This despite the fact that supply of graduates is increasingly outstripping demand for their skills and artificial intelligence is likely to threaten many professional roles further in the future.

David Goodhart, author of Head, Hand Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century, another guest on the programme, calls for a rebalancing of what we value in society and what constitutes a successful life.

He argues too much status has been given to jobs of the head (cognitive) at the expense of those of the hand (manual, craft) and the heart (caring, emotional).

Covid-19 has, he says, taught us something “we ought already to have known: that care workers, supermarket shelf-stackers, delivery drivers and cleaners are doing essential work that keeps us all alive, fed and cared for”.

Perhaps it's time to recalibrate what we value in society. Instead of over-rewarding cognitive skills we should elevate the status of those who care and serve others in society. And while money shouldn't be the way to demonstrate worth, raising the pay of such workers is probably the surest way to show this.

A fascinating and timely debate.

By Shahid Naqvi

This article is published by Professional Social work magazine which provides a platform for a range of perspectives across the social work sector. It does not necessarily reflect the views of the British Association of Social Workers.