From Meritocracy to Plutocracy

My ongoing job search and the experiences of my friends have caused me to think about the labour market in new and pessimistic ways. After each new rejection, I think, I deserved that job more than any of the other morons who applied. They probably just hired some pretentious cretin. I also think other things that are too profane to write here. But why do I deserve that job? And are the criteria used to evaluate potential employees fair?

It’s a pretty widely accepted fact by now that young people trying to break into the labour market are getting the short end of the stick. Their plight tends to start at the post-secondary level–the cost of education has grown exponentially in recent decades and students now have the debt to prove it. Mother Jones has excellent stats on this. What struck me most from these figures is that student debt has quadrupled in the past decade!! Though it’s easy to blame this on the recession, if you look at the student debt chart on Mother Jones, you’ll see that this trend was well underway years before the crisis struck. I chalk it up to a phenomenon called “post-secondary-mania,” in which getting a degree is a widely accepted ticket to success. If you look at the chart below, it is easy to surmise that the rise of post-secondary-mania, and thus tuition, coincided with North America’s shift from manufacturing to service jobs. In 1980 the US lost 1.1 million manufacturing jobs; now, a degree was paramount to getting one of those fancy finance jobs, hence tuition costs’ meteoric outpacing of inflation:

The mentality behind this rise is that education pays for itself. I recently met with a post-grad adviser in regard to a two year MA program I was considering taking. It focused on international relations, economics, and international organisations. The adviser told me that most of the recent graduates of the program were gainfully employed, but only because they had had connections waiting to employ them even before they entered the program. So how much does a Master’s that won’t help me get a job cost? $18,000 PER YEAR. Awesome. What I took from this experience was the knowledge that, if you’re in, you’re in, and, if not, then no amount of expensive education can get you in. So that’s one thing that people should probably start accepting, if they haven’t already.

Westerners are very fond of the idea of meritocracy, the idea that, with a lot of hard work and skill, anyone can succeed. This is the value that the American Dream represents. However, meritocracy is a fundamentally flawed concept, and one that drew its last breath sometime in the past 20 years.

First of all, true meritocracy can never be a reality, as Simone Brunozzi points out here. There are too many variables and no one starts from the same point. Those who started with less still have to work harder. And there is the uncomfortable question of the definition of merit. If two people start out with nothing and each works hard, one may be more successful than the other because of higher intelligence, increased persistence, or a charming personality. But it is not Person A’s fault that she is not as talented, determined, or likeable as Person B. Both worked hard, but meritocracy dictates that Person B succeed because of traits with which she was born. Is this fair?

Affirmative action policies attempt to level the playing field so that each may have an equal chance to succeed on merit alone. Unfortunately, they do so by acknowledging that people of a certain ethnicity are more likely to have had insufficient education, thereby institutionalising deplorable standards of education while simultaneously shutting out whites who may have gone to those same terrible schools. I agree with the Economist that affirmative action should be scrapped, but only if we can provide better education earlier on, thus ensuring that everyone is given an “equal” opportunity.

Despite all these flaws, the idea of meritocracy is sort of nice. The American Dream served as a great motivator for generations of Americans who believed they could make it through grit and determination. Now, however, social mobility is substantially less than it was in the 1950s (it began declining in the ’80s), and the US lags behind most other developed countries in Mark Thoma’s chart:

This suggests that our current society is not a meritocracy, but rather a mishmash of plutocracy, aristocracy, and nepotism. I say this because the descendents of the beneficiaries of meritocracy are now the ones that benefit from the merit of their parents. They are the ones who can pay for college, and they are the ones who can afford to slave away at the unpaid internships that are all the rage these days. So we have a plutocratic system in the sense that the wealthy are afforded (can afford) more opportunities. We’ve become an aristocratic society in the sense that if you are not born into a family that made its fortune from “merit,” then you are probably not going anywhere. And the labour market is ruled by nepotism and cronyism, now cronyism more than ever. If you don’t know people at the company you are applying for, you can probably forget about working there. It makes sense that people want to hire people that they know would be good employees, but I now see this devolving into people wanting to hire only people that they know, regardless of qualifications.

So I don’t really have the answers to the questions I posed above. Being a descendent of those who succeeded on mainly merit hasn’t helped me much; I chalk this up to me having assumed for too long that I was living in a world similar to that of my parents, and not in a savage jungle where you must kill or be killed. Perhaps meritocracy isn’t as dead as I thought, but rather the “hard work” element of the thing has been replaced by tech-savvy, noisiness and connections. And those who do not adapt must marry rich!

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