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Meritocracy | Who for?

Contrary to what you might expect, the term meritocracy was not initially conceived as a good thing. The term was coined by Michael Young in his book The Rise of the Meritocracy, which warned against the dangers of a society in which merit and ability became the sole determinants of the social order. This serves as a rough definition of a meritocracy, or as a contemporary thinker puts it

‘meritocracy represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins.’

To younger people like myself, the idea of a society based on merit rather than background sounds like a very attractive idea. After all, societies all over the world are plagued with inequality and injustice, and the undeniable reality is that life is much more difficult for those born into poverty, discrimination and hardship than those born into wealth. Understandably, people wish to combat unfairness in their societies and want a society in which people are rewarded for their merit rather than their parents’ bank balance. But herein lies the problem.

No matter how much money you spend on education, no matter how many schemes and initiatives are put in place to counter inequality in the workplace, people are still determined by the affluence of their upbringing and the wealth they inherit. The mere fact that if one has enough money, it is possible to send one’s child to a private school, where they will likely benefit from a higher quality education as well as the opportunity to meet people who will be of value to them later on in life.

Of course, there are other sources of bias with which we are all too familiar. People of colour and women still face barriers in many professions when it comes to career advancement. This is particularly true of the banking sector, which is one of the largest components of the UK economy, making up 6.9% of total output.

Although at entry-level the number of black applicants who go into banking after university is relatively high, many drop out of the industry early on, citing slow career progression as the reason why. Likewise, women make up 38% of middle management roles in the financial sector, but in higher roles, this figure dwindles to just 16.5%.

Admittedly, finance seems to be a particularly hostile environment for women and minorities, but this is nevertheless evidence that we do not live in a meritocracy.

Another problem is the way in which we construct our online personas for employers. It is up to the individual to write about themselves on their LinkedIn profile and to supply information about their history. Invariably, this generates highly subjective, unreliable information which is susceptible to fraud and which consequently misleads employers about what a candidate is actually capable of. This has a negative impact when it comes to hiring staff because there is a lack of verifiable, trustworthy information about applicants. To summarize, persona takes precedence over competence.

But the problems don't end there: nepotism is still rife in many industries. For instance, the child of a banker or lawyer will always find it easier to get a lucrative job in the city simply because they already have the inside track. They already live in that sphere, while others do not. If they need a point of entry into a firm they can just ask one of their parents’ many colleagues and professional acquaintances. Even if measures are put in place to prevent nepotism of this kind, the privilege of upbringing will persist because in many careers, prestige takes precedence over merit. Nepotism is not an imaginary problem: a survey found that

two-thirds of UK workers have witnessed nepotism in their workplace, while nearly one-third admitted to having witnessed someone get a job for which they were not qualified. In light of such findings, is it even possible to have such a thing as meritocracy? Is meritocracy even compatible with society as it currently stands? Have we all been chasing a myth?

At present, this would seem to be the case. But nevertheless, what draws so many to the idea of meritocracy is the prospect of a world in which true equality of opportunity may be possible. One would think that in a progressive, technologically advanced society that better access to various forms of education, decreasing amounts of hiring bias and the democratization of information would make society more meritocratic.

In the end, however, the real problem with meritocracy is the one Michael Young originally diagnosed: that ‘merit’ is a difficult thing to quantify from person to person. Instead of relying on subjective information to support decision-making in education and in the workplace, we must seek to empower individuals to validate their skills, abilities, and qualifications objectively in an irrefutable way. Only by doing this, we can dream of a level playing field for job-seekers where everyone regardless of status, gender or ethnicity, can attain the fulfilment they expect from their educational and professional lives. This is to say nothing of the fact that younger generations want the jobs market to be fair, and that employers themselves stand to benefit from a less myopic, more varied pool of potential candidates.

In short, the only way in which meritocracy can work is if the information on which people are judged is objective, that's where technology comes in to ensure that such a system exists.

This is the first of 8 articles aimed to discuss the agents of individual fulfilment for the future of work. Sign up here!

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