Inside Story

Is this the end of meritocracy?

Birth and luck clearly play an enormous role in our lives. So why does the idea of a meritocracy maintain its grip?

Frank Bongiorno 10 August 2017 2280 words

Qantas chief Alan Joyce’s obvious pleasure when he was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday honours is easy to understand. Through difficult times and in the face of plenty of criticism over many years, he has shown that he can do a tough job successfully. You can hardly begrudge the Companion of the Order of Australia to a man who has also had to endure a televised pie in the face.

“Australia is a nation of immigrants, past and present,” this Irish migrant declared in response to the honour, “and I think that’s why it’s also a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, you have the same opportunity to succeed. People are judged on ability, which is how it should be.”

But Joyce might well be puzzled to hear that when the British sociologist Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy” in his 1958 satirical novel The Rise of the Meritocracy, 18702033, he was using it as a pejorative. He wanted to show how awful a truly meritocratic society was likely to be.

As the British political historian Peter Hennessy usefully sums it up in his book Establishment and Meritocracy, Young’s fear was that “the old class system with its inefficiencies, absurdities and injustices would be swept away only to replace an aristocracy of birth with a meritocracy of talent that would, unlike the old ‘ocracy’ it was killing off, be both unreformable and irreversible.” When Young’s book ends in 2034 with rioting and social disturbances, the moral is that “all seemingly triumphant ‘ocracies,’ like all empires, light a fuse beneath themselves.”

The concept of meritocracy has taken a bit of a battering in recent times. But the demonstrable falseness of a claim like Alan Joyce’s — that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed regardless of where he or she comes from — has not been sufficient to kill it off. Context always matters, and Joyce’s comment was published in the Australian Financial Review, a newspaper whose demographic is likely to be receptive to his view. When you’re successful, it’s reassuring to be told you are the architect of your own success. And because you almost certainly are smart, industrious and affluent, it’s all quite plausible, too.

The fact that Joyce is a highly successful migrant is also significant; the immigration myth and the meritocracy myth make a powerful brew. It was in the 1980s that observers increasingly began remarking on the fact that some of the richest business figures in Australia were postwar migrants, many from continental Europe. Some of the names that figured then — Lowy and Grollo, for instance — are still with us, the baton having been handed on to the next generation. (The implications of multigenerational power for the idea of meritocracy are rarely considered.)

When the journalist Ruth Ostrow coined the term “The New Boy Network” in the mid 1980s, it was a powerful affirmation of the idea of meritocracy, one that showed you didn’t have to belong to the Melbourne Club or have inherited a large parcel of BHP shares to make it big. Some entrepreneurs were Holocaust survivors, others had fled from communism. Alan Bond, a British child migrant, couldn’t get into the Royal Perth Yacht Club but he unbolted the America’s Cup from its glass case in the New York Yacht Club. It would be hard to imagine a more powerful demonstration of meritocracy: the cheeky working-class Pommy migrant-turned-larrikin had not only stuck it up the Yanks, he had done what media magnate Frank Packer had failed to do.

A quarter of a century later, the global financial crisis inflicted serious wounds on the meritocratic myth by vividly demonstrating that financial rewards have become radically disconnected from merit or usefulness. It is easy to underestimate the GFC’s significance as a turning point in the modern history of the West. It has wrecked the social compact that emerged from the second world war in a way that no Thatcher or Reagan, however ambitious, ever managed.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the compact rested on a regulated free-market system capable of generating economic growth, full employment and rising income alongside rising social welfare and declining inequality. From the 1970s, it was increasingly battered from different directions. Developing countries claimed that they were being screwed by the rules of the game and called for a “new international economic order”; Western economies stagnated and their societies grew more unequal. Yet the welfare state remained largely intact and some opportunities for advancement remained open. The myth of meritocracy survived partly because it was still possible to argue that those who were sufficiently talented and industrious could make their way up the social ladder, despite their class disadvantage.

It was an idea that elided a lot of complications — especially in Britain, with its powerful markers of class difference. “Those of us who absorbed Michael Young’s warning when we were about to scale the first rungs of our own professional ladders were — and remain — riven by the concept of meritocracy,” explains Hennessy. “It was a self-evidently worthy impulse but it carried risks of callousness and disdain towards those who did not rise in terms of high status and well paid jobs.” (Hennessy has good reason to be interested in the idea of meritocracy. He grew up in London council houses and — via a grammar school and Cambridge education — has pursued a distinguished career in journalism, academia and the writing of political history. Today, he is Baron Hennessy of Nympsfield.)

For Lynsey Hanley, raised on a housing estate in the English Midlands, the issues at stake are more visceral. In her part-memoir, part-sociological study Respectable: Crossing the Class Divide, she draws on Richard Sennett’s concept of “the hidden injuries of class” to explore the social and psychological wrench of upward mobility. As she puts it, “the subject of class obsesses me, as it does a lot of people who started life in one class and have ended up in another. Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if you are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life.”

Meritocracy isn’t much interested in loss of this kind: it celebrates social and material success as ends in themselves, psychologically valuable at the individual level because self-validating, culturally valuable for the collective since they affirm the essential justness of the present order. All the same, I can’t recall any other period in my lifetime when more searching questions have been asked about the essential justness of that order, including its distribution of reward and opportunity.

Today, the only people who truly believe that a banker plays a social role as useful as a nurse or a teacher are bankers themselves. And that has had its effects on how democracies operate, especially in the context of post-GFC austerity. The fact that British professionals who hold down socially useful jobs are living in poverty is increasingly being reported in the media as one of the more offensive aspects of post-GFC austerity in that country. The inability of graduates to get decent jobs — here, as well as in Britain and the United States — is another, and has fed into the broader critique of intergenerational inequity powerfully articulated in Australia by Jennifer Rayner in Generation Less.

Perhaps these complaints contain traces of the meritocratic myth. In much public discourse about how the middle-aged and elderly are screwing over the young, it is specifically the middle-class young, who enjoyed greater security and comfort a generation or two ago, who are seen as especially put upon. The problem of housing affordability is mapped onto the collision of interests between millennials — locked out of the housing market and secure employment, in danger of joining a new kind of working class labelled the “precariat” — and the generation Xers, baby boomers and elderly who benefit from rising housing prices and might even enjoy the pleasures of negative gearing.

Meanwhile, the unrelenting financialisation of Western economies has highlighted the role of sheer luck in a way that a manufacturing economy could not. Industrial success was conventionally seen as the result of ingenuity and invention. The meritocracy concept was a product of this industrial world in its mature 1950s and 1960s phase, one in which the role of the trained technocrat had become central. It was easy, in these circumstances, to play up the part of education, expertise and merit and play down the role of chance.

Not so today. Now, respectable economists are writing books on the role of luck in human affairs. Andrew Leigh, in The Luck of Politics: True Tales of Disaster and Outrageous Fortune, sets out an extraordinary array of political and other events shaped by chance. While this sometimes takes on a Ripley’s Believe It or Not character (did you know that people with uncommon first names are more likely than others to land in prison?), he also has a serious social-democratic intent: recognising luck’s role might lead us “to a gentler view of success and failure.”

Leigh, who argues that his own calling of politics is more poker than chess, is not alone in making such claims. In Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy, Robert H. Frank, a professor of management and economics at Cornell University, argues that seemingly minor and random events and variations play an outsized role in our lives.

This might be a matter of being born in one place rather than another — say, a rich country like the United States rather than a poor one like Nepal. (Frank often draws on personal experience; he was a volunteer in the Peace Corps in Nepal.) Luck might be the time of the year you happened to be born — which has been shown to influence your likelihood of being picked up by a professional ice hockey team. (The cut-off date for participation in junior leagues means that being born early in the year tends to give an age advantage. Leigh reports that this kind of rule applies to elite sports more generally.) Look no further than the good fortune of Bill Gates, who found himself in one of the few private schools in the country with computer facilities able to provide rapid feedback on his efforts at computer programming.

According to Frank, in the increasingly winner-take-all markets of modern business, where a success story such as Google or Microsoft will squeeze most competitors out of the market entirely, the role of luck is ever greater. Luck is most influential for the biggest winners because high-stakes contests — such as elite sport or the entertainment industry — attract such a large number of capable and motivated contestants.

Gates has graciously acknowledged his good fortune, but not all who achieve fame, wealth or success do so. An emphasis on this kind of luck can be confronting or even offensive for its beneficiaries. Denying the power of luck might also spur additional effort, making someone more likely to succeed. And if you deny that a failure is the result of bad luck, you’re less likely to be deterred from renewed effort.

All of this has relevance to politics and policy. Conservatives, says Frank, are more likely than liberals or radicals to deny luck’s role in success. This might mean that when they are confronted with failure, they blame it on those who have failed. It might also mean that the successful are hostile to the idea of paying more tax — since they see their earnings and their lifestyle as reward for merit, rather than the fruit of good fortune.

In resisting taxation, though, they are also undermining the environment they share with those less successful and less fortunate. They might get to drive flash cars, but the roads are full of potholes. Frank advocates replacing income tax with a progressive consumption tax to discourage the wasteful spending stimulated by the desire of wealthy and successful (and lucky) people to display their accomplishments, and the impulse of those lower down the ladder to emulate them.

Where does all of this leave meritocracy? Despite assaults from every side, it surely remains a powerful myth. American voters presumably suspect that Donald Trump is where he is partly because he inherited wealth and connections and had a good education, but many also see him as a man who has succeeded on his merits in the unforgiving world of business and entertainment. Indeed, they appear to accept his narrative that he has succeeded despite all sorts of grand conspiracies. The world of celebrity — in which luck looms especially large — seems especially prone to underestimating the role of fortune. Trump wins, it seems, because he is better than the rest of us.

And yet, for all his faults, he has helped reintroduce the unfamiliar language of class back into mainstream American political discourse. One of his messages is that his white working- and middle-class supporters are doing poorly not because they lack either merit or luck, but because the cards have been stacked against them by cheats and crooks (from whom, of course, he excludes himself). The message is that if the deck is rearranged by the Forty-Fifth President of the United States — who is, after all, a casino operator from way back — then luck and merit will once again be allowed to play their proper respective roles in human affairs.

If that sounds like a con, it might be because many of the ideas attached to the concept of meritocracy are a con. •