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The Far Side of Meritocracy

Michael Young's coinage of the term "meritocracy" is turning fifty years old. Young's satirical warnings of its downside remain as fresh as ever.

Published on October 11, 2012
The Rise of the Meritocracy (1958)
Michael Young

Both Auguste Comte, who coined the word “sociology”, and the sociologist Michael Young, who coined the word “meritocracy”, were excoriated by language purists of their time (1843 and 1958, respectively). Each combined a Latin word with a Greek word, thus committing several sins simultaneously. Not only did they violate traditions of word formation, one in French, the other in English, but each man imagined through his neologism a way of seeing and thinking that otherwise had no imaginative room in which to grow. Sociology was to be a new science—the queen of the sciences, as Comte saw it. Like his mentor Saint-Simon (1760–1825), who coined such terms as industriele and industrielisme, Comte justified his new word precisely because it broke with the past as much as it foreshadowed the future. In Young’s case, the neologism was meant to name the future in a way that split the difference between progress and warning.

As the term “meritocracy” has evolved in common understanding, the notion has turned out to be wildly attractive to those who have heralded the rise of individualism and the responsibilities of individuals. Comte’s “sociology”, with its grand pretensions of sociologist-priests running the world based on their carefully gathered and tested scientific knowledge, corresponds today with government and expert claims to know what is best for individual citizens. It is within that context that the now tendentious equation of injustice with inequality is expressed, owing as it does much to the belief that social progress is a top-down opportunity rather than a bottom-up struggle. As the President of the United States discovered in his remark intended to temper enthusiasm about individual achievement and personal gain, “You didn’t build that”, he exposed a great fault-line in modern society by pointing indirectly to the persistence of class divisions and the centrality of social context. Others pointed back, some wagging their fingers rather vigorously, to the roles and responsibilities of individuals—and, mostly without realizing it, to Michael Young.

Young (1915–2002) believed in and cherished the potential of individuals as agents of progress as well as the promise of government by experts, and everything in between. He envisioned the possibility of an open, freer world, less encumbered than ever by aristocratic privilege and the political power of money. He was first and foremost a social entrepreneur, an adviser to politicians and government leaders, and an innovator across a broad spectrum of social concerns. He was a social thinker whose reckonings were intended for the widest possible audience, corresponding to his aspirations for their empowerment. Unlike most sociologists, too, he engaged the world not as a theoretical construct but as it was lived by the people in it.

As a result, many of Young’s accomplishments as a builder of institutions (one associate described him as “a sculptor of institutional form”) and an agent of change made him well-known in his time, but much less so just a decade after his death. His most enduring mark on posterity is the one about which he was also decidedly most ambivalent. Revisiting The Rise of the Meritocracy, now more than a half-century after its publication, reveals just as much about the forces at work today as it did then. Young pinpointed the essential changes that remain altogether recognizable in our time, but are regarded in terms of politics and culture in ways that neither he nor anyone else could have fully anticipated. 

Originally published in England with the subtitle: 1870–2033—An Essay on Education and Equality, the first American edition (1959) of The Rise of the Meritocracy offered a different subtitle: 1870–2033—The New Elite of Our Social Revolution. Reviews and commentary ever since have tried to locate it within the history of utopian/dystopian literature. Daniel Bell called it “social-science fiction” (a phrase coined by Isaac Asimov in the 1950s), and although its ambition resonates with such notable works mentioned by Bell as William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890) and H.G. Wells’s The Shape of Things to Come (1933), the fact is that its mix of present fact and future prediction makes it difficult to typecast simply or definitively. This is part of its staying power—not only the staying power of the word “meritocracy”, but also of the book’s historical and sociological analysis, which requires very little imaginative fancy. Even its conclusion is still prescient, despite the fact that some found it to be the weakest part of the work.1

Very likely, it is the book’s unconventional style that encouraged its depiction as sociologically otherworldly. Young narrates The Rise of the Meritocracy in the (now not-too-distant) future of 2034 in Great Britain, laying out as he goes an historical explanation about an emergent new order in which “we frankly recognize that democracy can be no more than an aspiration, and have rule not so much by the people as by the cleverest people; not an aristocracy of birth, not a plutocracy of wealth, but a true meritocracy of talent.” This true meritocracy challenges past traditions of leadership and succession in numerous ways. Young dwells extensively on the implications for social class formation, determined historically by aristocratic privilege, which was as much about a guarantee of placement in high-status schools and occupations as it was about security in wealth. The dissolution of this order created new opportunities for those with great talent from poorer circumstances as well as new barriers for those with little talent from wealthier circumstances. Of this latter condition he wrote, in the past tense of the imagined 2034, “To imagine merit where none existed was the sanctioned psychosis of a million homes.”

The helicopter parent, even with children of talent, is only the latest stereotype of the “sanctioned psychosis” that, as Young understood, emanates from the very nature of the nuclear family against social reforms pursued in the name of greater equality: “In the long run ambitious parents always brought to grief the best-laid schemes of egalitarian reformers”, foresaw Young more than half a century ago. He understood, as we should, too, that the family is the origin of every other form of competition that exists beyond it. In the matter of schooling, for example, I recall a visit some years ago by my wife and I to discuss our son’s progress with his second-grade public elementary school teacher. The teacher remarked that of the twenty or so families she had met with, in each case both parents had made the visit. A colleague of hers who taught in an elementary school some twenty miles away had told her that, of her twenty or so students, only a few parents had shown up to meet with her at all. Whatever the class contrast was and still is, improving the quality of the schools, which remains the key locus of most reformers’ hopes, cannot easily induce the “sanctioned psychosis” in the homes where it is most needed, and which are so often maligned by those already secure in their talents and opportunities.

Young acknowledged ways in which the family was a conspiracy against reform, and his disinterested account describes how aristocratic privilege became dysfunctional for societal needs against a background of rising demand for talented leaders and entrepreneurs. The discovery of such talent discriminated less and less by class once merit, based on intelligence testing, emerged as the method of selection as Britain sped toward 2034. Nevertheless, the upper classes managed to retain the power to provide opportunities for their children in the midst of an explosion of white-collar jobs and educational opportunity for those from lower classes. Writing in the late 1950s, Young projected these developments into the 1980s in a way not inconsistent with the ascent of Margaret Thatcher and a new agenda of reforms more in line with the ideals of meritocracy (an odd job for a Tory, one might think, but then one might think again).

At the same time, Young’s vision for England included a relentless dismantling of the accoutrements of privilege, including the use of taxation to abolish inheritance. Karl Marx, in The Communist Manifesto, proposed the abolition of inheritance as one of ten reforms to achieve a new social order. In The Rise of the Meritocracy, the envisioned abolition of such privilege was generally designed to ensure that the lower orders in particular would be less dissatisfied with their place in life, because they could agree that those who got ahead did so by merit (read: intelligence). (One wonders what Young would think, were he alive today, of the current state of play over America’s estate tax.)

Education in a meritocracy would become the principal means of identifying raw aptitude, but in Young’s depiction, the most important goal was to determine “the qualities needed to benefit from a higher education.” Although meritocracy is now alleged in its popularized and somewhat debased form as one way of classifying everyone socially by measuring general intelligence (the g factor), Young envisioned a more subtle combination of interactions that adjusted the selection criteria away from any single factor and toward a basket of criteria presumably most indicative of the qualities needed to benefit from a higher education. The role of determining those criteria fell to middle and high school teachers: “Second-rate teachers, a second-rate élite.” In his future vision for improvement in schools, Young observed, again in the future perfect 2034 tense, “Things improved until at last the teachers attained their ideal of superiority of esteem. One of the wisest strokes of the marvelous decade was to put the salaries of science teachers on the same level as scientists in industry.” Teachers, not just tests, were the gatekeepers of the sunlit uplands that belonged to the future elite.

Yet as Young’s satire proceeds from a depiction of progress to one of warning, the meritocracy created by the new educational system turned from its traditional measures to testing and, eventually, to genetic selection. The future of 2034 was a world increasingly divided not only by intelligence but by the difference in opportunity and income that followed from that division—in other words, growing meritocratic rather than aristocratic inequality.

 

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oung should be credited with sharpening the distinction between social inequality and social stratification. The latter locution is intentionally neutral with respect to political and moral judgments and actions, but social inequality, the regnant idea in sociology at present, is loaded—indeed, overloaded—with all kinds of judgments and calls for action. The transformation of aristocracy into meritocracy continued to offer advantages to some but not to others, with new inequalities to address regardless of who has benefited and who has not. Young foresaw how inequality, however it was produced, would become the catalyst for “activism”, however defined.

For a very substantial percentage of sociologists today, sociological knowledge dictates one kind of policy agenda or another at the highest levels of political activity (in elections, courts, or social protest movements). To Young’s credit, he saw early on that, while inducing government to effect change might be necessary at certain times, it would not be sufficient or effective at other times. Young’s account in The Rise of the Meritocracy does not elaborate a role for what have come to be known as “mediating institutions”, those types of organizational forms (churches, schools, voluntary associations, professional societies) famously described by Alexis de Tocqueville as the buffers between unbridled individualism and over-determined government intrusion. In the British case, the problem would be ameliorated by the formation of different types of schools devoted to encouraging the best performance of students with different aptitudes and, in modern parlance, different kinds of intelligence. This is one source of a misreading of Young’s book: He knew all along that some kind of sorting was essential to the future competitiveness of England, but he lamented the loss of fellow-feeling and consideration for the less fortunate that true meritocracy, with its tendencies toward both competitiveness and individuation, seemed destined to create.

In order to make this last point crystal clear, Young noted how the formation of an elite based on merit directly challenged seniority, the most ancient form of tenure. A more apt literary comparison of The Rise of the Meritocracy is therefore Anthony Trollope’s 1882 novel The Fixed Period, set in 1980, in which the imaginary republic of Britannula has passed a law requiring all those who reach the age of 67 to end their lives, an acknowledgment of the end of their usefulness. At the time, the novel was regarded as a satire of zealous reformers intent on achieving precisely what finally troubled Young about the unintended consequences of meritocracy. Trollope’s satire was based on a 17th-century play, The Old Law, which proposed that men at eighty and women at sixty be executed in order “to finish what nature linger’d at.”2

In an age of hyper-efficiency in the workplace, respect for the older worker may be afforded, but it is performance that is rewarded. As Young intoned in the present tense of 2034, “age is as much an irrelevant criterion as birth.” The key sociological observation here was that, “Within the span of human history age has been the most enduring ruling class: once established, every aristocracy, every plutocracy, every bureaucracy, has been a gerontocracy.” Reforming the schools was necessary, but the restrictive guild mentality had also to be overcome; in effect, “competition had to last for life.”

But this obeisance to competition applied only to those already gifted with high intelligence. For those less gifted, the question remained, “Who will do the dirty work?” The first answer was mechanization, but considering that all future sorting would be based on intelligence, Young’s answer to who would perform such labor even with the aid of machines was, “Why, men who like doing it, of course.” The initial resistance by the more intelligent managers of such an arrangement echoed the anxieties of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. In characterizing less intelligent workers as “gammas” or “proles”, Huxley and Orwell “had been attacking not equal opportunity, but the effects of conditioning and propaganda.” Young continued,

Enlightened modern methods have nothing in common with these brave new worlds. But at first not all managers realized that so signally to square efficiency with justice, and order with humanity, was nothing less than a new stage in the ascent of man, brought within his reach by the early advances in the social sciences.

Read ironically, as Young intended, the evolution of the social sciences has by 2034 led to profoundly serious differences with respect to possible futures.

Young could never have anticipated the actual trajectory of sociology from his vantage point. The American Sociological Association’s 2012 annual meetings headlined the theme “Real Utopias”, an oxymoron that distinguishes some, if not all, sociologists as anti-realists whose elite consensus is one of a willful blindness to a world that has passed them by. They think they are making some kind of difference, which allows conviction to pass for insight, but such reaction may be their own “sanctioned psychosis” in reaction to their witnessing the ascent of behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology, which now define and address many present problems. All one has to do is ask a political scientist whether a meeting of the American Political Science Association would address the theme of “real utopias” to appreciate how far from reality the profession of sociology has drifted, at least in its most public, rhetorical strategies. The rank and file of sociologists surely could not be so inclined to professional suicide, could they?

Not so politicians, apparently. As if to anticipate the decline of sociology generally, Young described the disappearance of the Labour Party as

more and more [working class] parents began to harbor ambitions for their children rather than their class. The cult of the child became the drug of the people; inspired by hope, vitalized by ambition, the whole nation began to advance as never before from the moment that the Labour Party came to a standstill.

Real history, of course, witnessed new life for Labour in the ascent of Tony Blair, but it was not an ascent that pleased Young.

A year before he died, Young took strong exception to “New” Labour’s appropriation of his idea of meritocracy, used without irony and without any appreciation of unintended consequences. Lamenting the disturbing results of meritocracy’s rise for those left behind, Young wrote in the Guardian on June 29, 2001, that those “branded at school . . . are more vulnerable for later unemployment.” He called for “increasing income taxes on the rich . . . and reviving more powerful local government as a way of involving local people and giving them a training for national politics.” Consistent with his devotion to mediating institutions, Young still insisted on a form of subsidiarity: the vital importance of “local people”—those most ideally placed to address the radiating concerns of a nation.

But in our age of celebrity and an absence of noblesse oblige, except insofar as it might pad a résumé, the “local people” have been branded social inferiors in relation to what is now called the cognitive elite—the “symbol manipulators”, or the “creative class”, that occupies the highest ranks of education and employment. “Hence one of our characteristic modern problems”, Young prophesied:

some members of the meritocracy, as most moderate reformers admit, have become so impressed with their own importance as to lose sympathy with the people whom they govern, and so tactless that even people of low caliber have been quite unnecessarily offended.

This was not then, nor is it now, a trivial insight about the true stakes of success. Humility is a rare commodity across the political spectrum, and perhaps for good reason. The destabilization of class relations has intensified political conflict, but this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding the real costs and benefits of meritocracy. For example, the movements against meritocracy today cite “capitalism” as the economic system most responsible for inequality without much accounting for who succeeds at amassing capital. Defenders of capitalism view its ties to liberty as an essential part of its flourishing. The rise of the meritocracy appears to split the difference, creating the greatest opportunity for those most able to take advantage of it, while redefining liberty as an obligation not to fail. Young’s genius was to illustrate the problem from the vantage point of what he already sensed was a more or less predictable future.

 

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he conclusion of The Rise of the Meritocracy anticipates other kinds of changes that were already emerging in the 1950s. Not least among them is the role that women were coming to play in challenging the new systems put in place by a devotion to meritocracy.

The more talented younger women, rather than pursue the professions that their intelligence obliged them to, identify with the “common technicians”, those in lower occupations whose political clout had been on the wane. They represent the interests of “Socialism” and its call for a classless society in which the more intelligent inhabitants would be directed toward labor more conducive to social equality. Their revolt against meritocracy is highlighted by a fanciful Chelsea Manifesto from which Young quotes:

The classless society would be one which both possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupation, and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. . . . Every human being would then have equal opportunity, not to rise up in the world in the light of any mathematical measure, but to develop his own special capacities for leading a rich life. 

Young clearly embraced these sentiments in certain measure, anticipating the contemporary notion of multiple intelligences, but his parody of the social egalitarians proceeds apace: “Perhaps their strangest achievement was the capture of The Times and its conversion, for a few months in 2009, into a popular newspaper.”

The crisis of confidence in the meritocracy arises in particular from the way the status of women is defined. Young reports from 2034 that, “society seemed to many women, especially the able ones, in mind men if at heart women, to have been constructed expressly for the convenience of the opposite sex.” The more intelligent women were entrusted with the dual responsibilities of “her chosen profession” and “her biological vocation”, and this “often gave rise to mental tension in all those women who could not feel that child-rearing is (as it is in fact) one of the noblest occupations of them all, especially when it is part time.” That tension also existed for women ambivalent about their chosen profession.

A recent article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All”, reads something like the Chelsea Manifesto (of which, alas, Young invented only a single paragraph in his narrative). At any rate, it admits that the inevitable tensions facing women cannot be willed away by feminist ideology. But women’s place in the meritocracy has improved over the past fifty years, probably in ways that would have surprised Young. Affirmative action for women is no longer about entry into the professions but about breaking the glass ceiling of those occupations. Dr. Slaughter insists that women must speak up more and men must listen more, but that is a call for a change in the rules of engagement, not in the goals of meritocracy. How far this might go is something we should know much better by 2034. We might also have a better idea by then as to whether or not the West, or the United States at least, is drifting into the meritocratic dystopia of which Young warned. If Tony Blair’s “New Labour” rankled in 2001, what would he see in the American scene of 2012?

 

1The most comprehensive, single source on Young’s life and work is Geoff Dench, Tony Flower and Kate Gavron, eds., Young at Eighty: The Prolific Public Life of Michael Young (Carcanet, 1995).

2A counter-narrative is available in Jewish tradition. Deuteronomy 10:5 and 1 Kings 8:9 have long been interpreted to mean that one should “show respect to a scholar who has forgotten his learning through age, sorrow or illness.” As one commentator wrote, “We must respect the aged, though they be broken by years and troubles.”

 

Jonathan B. Imber is Jean Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and editor-in-chief of Society.