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Home Opinion Meritocracy and the fair society
Fairness • Social Mobility • Meritocracy

Meritocracy and the fair society

Geoff Dench - 04 October 2012

Fairness Series

Nowadays most social mobility in Britain occurs during full-time education, before any real contribution to society can have been made. If we really want to have a society that is able to nurture and reward a full range of valuable qualities, we need to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities available to achieve status and power which do not depend on academic success

The concept of meritocracy means a number of different things to different people; but in the end these revolve around some shared understanding that in a fair society all individuals should possess appropriate characteristics and skills for their positions in society, and should work for and earn these, rather than simply inheriting them through their families. That way, their social position and rewards are fully merited.

The term ‘meritocracy’ itself derives from Michael Young’s novel, The Rise of the Meritocracy, originally published in 1958. After the Second World War there was a widespread feeling in many countries that hereditary elites had failed, and needed to be replaced by people who were better fitted to the demands of modern occupations. During the 1950s, under Harold Macmillan, the Tory Party was busily modernising and developing a market-based system for encouraging the social mobility that this entailed; and many in the Labour Party – then languishing in opposition – felt that Labour should aim to trump this with centralised state control of schooling to plan and promote social mobility. Although he had been a communist before joining Labour, Michael felt that this would be a mistake, and produce the wrong sort of meritocracy. His novel was intended to deter the party from this option.

In the novel, which starts in the 1950s and projects events through to the year 2033, the Labour Party is portrayed developing a statist variant of meritocracy based on measuring people’s intelligence and determining their educational and occupational opportunities on that basis. This is all justified on the grounds that national efficiency and competitiveness are there by maximised. But the outcome is a society in which a new hereditary elite, produced by the biological transmission of intelligence, replaces the old. This new meritocracy is even more closed and selfish than the old ruling class; and ordinary people – those not selected for education into top jobs - are made to feel utterly worthless. The key message of the story is that everyone needs to feel that they are useful to others; but in meritocracy this feeling is monopolised by a small group. The novel ends, in 2033, with a hint that the alienated masses eventually rise in revolt.

What Michael did next was I think a bit ambivalent and contradictory. The Party did not take his fictional  warning very seriously; so Michael put his weight behind Labour’s move to abandon selection in state schools altogether by adopting  Comprehensives. He argued that Comprehensive Schools would value a wider range of contributions to society, and thereby help avoid the emergence of a new elite. But he chose to overlook that many of the people supporting Comprehensives were doing so for rather different reasons – in particular as a way of simply delaying selection in order to reduce the direct effect on educational performance of family background. Thus many saw it as a means of refining meritocratic selection. So it was possibly a little unfair of Michael to attack Tony Blair so vigorously at the turn of the century for his positive attitude towards meritocracy. Michael felt that the importance attached by New Labour to academic success was becoming too like the emphasis on intelligence in his novel; and would have the same demoralising effect on ordinary people – the losers in the system. However Michael himself believed very strongly in education, and had helped foster New Labour’s obsession with it.

There are several important policy lessons to draw from this. Firstly, as Michael tried to convey, it is dangerous for a society to regard any single personal attribute as the only valuable human quality, and then reward it heavily at the expense of everything else. This danger is probably greater where the state itself takes on centralised organisation of social mobility. A more market-based meritocracy - as found now in Japan, the US, Germany and several other countries – is more likely to recognise the social value of a range of skills and attributes.

Even more fundamentally though, if we really want to have a society that is able to nurture and reward a full range of valuable qualities, we need to make sure that there are plenty of opportunities available to achieve status and power which do not depend on academic success. In the past, a good deal of upward social mobility took place throughout adult life, in the workplace and community. This ensured that there was a strong connection between social usefulness and rewards for effort made. Nowadays most social mobility in Britain occurs during full-time education, before any real contribution to society can have been made. Our class and reward structures may feel less fair because of this.

Geoff Dench is a fellow of the Young Foundation, and editor of The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy


This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Globalisation and Governance.

Tags: Fairness , Social Mobility , Meritocracy , Fair , Society , Equity , Equality , Egalitarianism , UK , Britain , Japan , United States , U.S. , Germany , Harold Macmillan , Tony Blair , Michael Young , Tory Party , Conservative Party , Conservatives , Tories , Labour Party , Jobs , Education , Work , Class

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Radiant
20 October 2012 05:27

If I commuincaetd I could thank you enough for this, I'd be lying.

Steven
20 October 2012 03:45

Lot of smrtas in that posting!

tom schuller
07 October 2012 17:47

Geoff, this is an interesting point. I've been thinking about meritocracy because I'm writing a book on how and why women at work stay below their level of competence - what I call the Paula Principle (the mirror image of the Peter Principle, if you remember that). Women have a bigger and bigger share of formal qualifications, but this is not reflected in career terms. In one sense that goes against your argument, ie it signals an unlinking of educational achievement from career success. But it also raises the issue of how tight we want to make this link; and I think your point about other sources of talent is well taken.

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