For Luck or Merit: On Jessi Streib’s “The Accidental Equalizer”
By Johann N. NeemNovember 18, 2023
The Accidental Equalizer: How Luck Determines Pay After College by Jessi Streib
And that is, in many ways, a good thing, argues sociologist Jessi Streib in her new book, The Accidental Equalizer: How Luck Determines Pay After College. Based on a study of business majors at a mid-level public university, she concludes that luck, more than class, or even grades or experience, determines who gets a job and how much that job pays. She argues that mid-tier businesses forge a “luckocracy” that overcomes our society’s tendency to reproduce class inequality.
In fact, Streib finds, employers use a system in which class plays almost no role in shaping outcomes, so that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same shot that those from advantaged backgrounds have. Those who got the job showed up at the right time and were just good enough. The mid-tier business market is a class equalizer, and while it does not eradicate racial and gender inequalities, it reduces their impact.
Streib is studying the kinds of colleges that most four-year students attend (including my own) and the kinds of employment markets that they will enter. The headlines are full of studies that demonstrate the inequalities of higher education, mostly focusing on the nation’s most selective institutions, which offer better internships, superior networking, and flashy names. But that is not relevant for most college graduates.
Streib’s striking conclusion is that the luckocracy “awards the same average earnings to graduates of non-elite universities who come from advantaged and disadvantaged class backgrounds,” leading to “earnings equalization.” This is not because college equalizes students: class-advantaged students earn better grades, do more and often better internships, and have access to private resources that are unavailable to most students. It’s because employers use criteria that neutralize the advantages that some students have over others.
She considers criteria to be class-neutral if class-advantaged students have no better chance of securing higher-paying jobs than those from class-disadvantaged backgrounds. Class-neutral criteria include vague job ads and titles, idiosyncratic company recruiters, hidden pay information, and a low bar to meet employers’ hiring expectations. Moreover, employers want leaders but care little whether students learned to be leaders or to solve complex problems by working an internship at their parents’ tony law firm or from a job at McDonald’s. Under these conditions, Streib writes, a job seeker is like a contestant on Let’s Make a Deal. When the best one can do is guess which key will open the door, a person’s expertise or background information provides no advantage or disadvantage.
Streib contrasts the luckocracy with the meritocracy, arguing that meritocracy reinforces class reproduction in two ways. First, because it sets a high bar, it rewards people who have the resources—“money, time, and mentorship”—to get above the bar. Second, meritocracy privileges those who are most familiar with the rules of the game, meaning those with the most connections and therefore access to the best information. Paradoxically, “[w]hereas the luckocracy delivers equality via opacity, the meritocracy creates inequality through transparency.”
But, I would argue, the meritocracy depends on luck too. Not only do students from well-off families have an advantage getting into selective colleges, which in turn leads to jobs at selective firms or admission to selective graduate programs, but luck also plays at least some role in determining whether our particular set of talents and skills have economic value at any particular moment. The meritocracy hides luck’s role by emphasizing hard work even if, as Daniel Markovits, a legal scholar, writes, this means that American meritocrats work endless hours, sacrificing leisure, family, and personal needs to serve their employers. The grind begins early, in elite high schools where, as sociologist Natasha Warikoo found, elite students do endless hours of homework and test prep to “earn” their way into the best colleges.
Because hard work is visible but luck hidden, meritocrats believe that they deserve their positions and high salaries. That’s why journalist Will Bunch blames meritocracy for spurring our divisive politics as the subjects of elite disdain—Americans without college degrees who are struggling to stay above water—respond with anger and resentment against elitist experts, business leaders, technocrats, and bureaucrats. Streib adds her own contribution to this conversation. By centering luck, Streib hopes to foster a spirit of humility: “The luckocracy may help us stop seeing ourselves and others as deserving or undeserving more broadly, and to work toward creating a tax code, safety net, justice system, and educational system that are fair to the lucky and the unlucky alike.”
The luckocratic system does have its disadvantages, Streib acknowledges. First, it serves business interests. Businesses benefit when they do not advertise salaries and when the criteria for jobs remain vague. This means that job seekers have less control over their choices, employment markets are less efficient, and job seekers lack the knowledge and traction to negotiate pay. Streib also wonders whether the fact that businesses seek candidates who are just good enough actually disincentivizes hard work and skill development. She notes that the luckocracy only benefits the college-educated, limiting its egalitarian effects for Americans who do not have a college degree. This is particularly galling since most employers care little about what students studied in college.
In fact, colleges play a surprisingly small role in creating this equal playing field. The business program that Streib studies offered the same training and access to resources to all students, including seminars on how to find a job or succeed in interviews. But for the most part, Streib believes, the students’ college education mattered little to their employment success. The problem is particularly acute for undergraduate business programs. “There is little reason for undergraduate business schools to demand that their students learn many skills,” Streib writes. On the one hand, this means that perhaps we can stop wringing our hands about whether colleges actually teach students anything since one doesn’t need to excel in academics to get a reasonably good job in the private sector. On the other hand, requiring a useless credential “also delegitimizes a college education in some people’s minds, leaving some to wonder why going to college is important.”
Streib’s book ultimately cannot answer whether a college education matters and for what ends. That’s not her question. She helps us see something else: a world in which class reproduction is weakened by class-neutral employment markets. She makes clear that she is not engaging with the elite world that economists such as Raj Chetty study, where “meritocracy” prevails. Instead, she concludes, for most American college students, there are ways to get ahead in the United States that are not predetermined by family background. Political theorists have long argued against the injustice of outcomes based on birth. But overcoming the lottery of birth is not easy and often requires drastic changes to our society that are political nonstarters. Sometimes, like when Plato suggested that children be removed from their families, the proposed solutions go against our basic values.
Perhaps only luck can overcome luck. As historian Jackson Lears argues, Americans have always struggled to balance narratives of chance against narratives of mastery. The former “implies a contingent universe where luck matters and admits that net worth may have nothing to do with moral worth,” while the latter “assumes a coherent universe where earthly rewards match ethical merits.” Yet, seeing the universe as a contingent has its dark side too, something that Streib does not acknowledge. The 19th-century American West, for example, encouraged dangerous risk-taking and a sense that playing with fate was a form of masculine self-assertion. To face the world as it is, tempt fate, and come out ahead is not only thrilling but also, paradoxically, evidence of a kind of mastery. Love of the chance, of the contingent, is what gave life to the United States’ “sporting culture,” as historian Kenneth Cohen refers to it. But games of chance could be used both to generate a sense of equality among players and to assert power over others, Cohen concludes. Winners find ways to justify their dominance in both meritocracies and luckocracies.
In an earlier Calvinist America, God’s grace was predestined. In theory, salvation was not connected to deservedness. But we do not live in that America any longer. Streib obliges us to ask whether meritocracy is the best replacement for God’s grace. The luckocracy might be random and arbitrary, but it reduces the injustices of birth and privilege. Perhaps this will generate more humility, as Streib hopes. It could also backfire if we lionize risk-takers as courageous, virile tempters of fate, rather than simply lucky. Nonetheless, for students in most four-year colleges, luckocracy might also offer hope. For all its flaws, by disconnecting success from merit, it has something to teach all of us.
Johann N. Neem is author of What’s the Point of College? Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform (2019) and Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017), which was reviewed in the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is a professor of history at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
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