Is Meritocracy a Myth?


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It is a truth universally acknowledged by every employer, that a potential employees resume may in fact, contain some untruths. Some exaggerations. Some inflation of experience or skill. Some plain old waffle with the words ‘passion’ and ‘drive’ drizzled on top. We’ve all carefully cultivated a few white lies in our CVs right? I’ll hold my hand up and admit that yes, shamefully, my extensive barista maestro experience was mostly google searches on the difference between lattes and cappuccinos (And I’m still not entirely sure!).


Still, the point of the bluff, we tell ourselves, is to get that job, promotion, raise because competition is fierce, and we need to stand out. If everyone is doing it, then we are only levelling the playing field.

But what if I was to tell you that the game is already rigged?


'A social system, society, or organization in which people get success or power because of their abilities, not because of their money or social position.'

Do not pass go


The definition of Meritocracy above, from the Cambridge dictionary, is a description of a Utopian society that we could all aspire to. Indeed, Western society is obsessed with achievement, accolades and ‘getting ahead’. We applaud the hustle culture and admire those self-made millionaires and billionaires because we think their wealth was created by intelligence and hard work.


A simple formulation of talent and effort determines who succeeds and who doesn’t. Seems fair and egalitarian on the surface; rewarding those who work hard in society. However, there is a darker side that is not so apparent. Much like the board game monopoly, which is based on capitalism (and meritocracy), there are always losers. Think for a minute about those in the system who are not rewarded for hard work, who are not the winners. What happens to them?


Meritocracy is not the social equaliser as previously thought when the term was coined in the 1950s; what we now see how this system increases inequality by widening the gap between economic classes and hindering social mobility.


And the award goes to


Advantage. Those bestowed with a complex series of privileges, opportunities and advantages, undeniably do better. And although there are many contributing factors in the algorithm of life that can determine an individual’s future success, the biggest influence is widely believed to be their socio-economic background.


Indeed, researchers from Harvard University created an ‘Opportunity Atlas’ that highlights this crucial element. It is an interactive map of the USA that can accurately predict the future income of any person based on their socio-economic background. It demonstrates the concrete link between wealth, family status, environmental location and rates of future financial success.


Those whose upbringing includes private schooling, enriching extra-curricular clubs, academic tutoring, family connections and many more opportunities that affluence can bring, are being given that golden head start. Ultimately an unfair advantage for achievement that their peers do not possess. They are ‘set up’ for success.


To illustrate, nearly half of students from independent schools got an A or A* in their A-levels in 2019, against a national average of one in four. And from that cohort of privately schooled pupils, they earn 7% to 9% more a year than equally qualified state school graduates from low socioeconomic status.

As education is the cornerstone of social change, schools, universities and policymakers must do everything they can to provide the support for equal opportunities in the Education system. More scholarships. More bursaries. More funding.


Lucky stars


Historically, would it be too much hyperbole to say that a successful candidate to the big sectors like banking and law, needed the following desirable qualities: straight, white, male and privileged? Not so much of a stretch to the imagination. The hiring mindset of employers in the 80s and 90s was biased with sexism, racial bigotry and discrimination.


How much has really changed? Was meritocracy a myth only in the past?


A recent study conducted over 2 years in the USA, shines a light on privilege in STEM industries: straight, white men who are not disabled get more pay, greater respect and a wealth of career opportunities compared with all other groups. Shockingly, earning on average, $20,000 a year more than their counterparts (disabled, female, ethnic minorities). At present, it is believed that most industries are ‘equal opportunities’ employers. We’ve all seen that little virtue signalling box at the bottom of job applications. However, it could be strongly argued that nowadays success, in the intensely competitive job market, is a winning combination of certain privileges.


Successful people have a tendency to feel like they have earned their success, like they deserve it, and a as a natural consequence, they tend to believe that less successful people deserve their lot. Driving the them and us culture. The wealthy attribute their success to their good choices, intelligence and merit. Often that does play a huge role, but we cannot discount or underestimate that good fortune in circumstance of birth, schooling, class, family status, has also earned them that success. Undoubtedly, luck can be the deciding factor.


In conclusion, yes, meritocracy is a myth. What’s more, it should remain that way. Let’s not strive to construct a significantly flawed system, however well-intentioned. A meritocracy is inherently the worst of capitalism, fundamentally installing hierarchy, privilege and dividing us into those who ‘have’ and those who ‘have not’.


Instead, let’s endeavour for a more socialist society, centering on bringing us together. When we begin to untangle how much of success is due to merit and how much is due to that initial endowment of privilege, we can bring awareness and action to truly create equal opportunity for all.