ONE DAY, WHEN OUR youngest son was in grade school, he came home with first prize in a classroom contest. When we congratulated him, he replied: “Oh, all the kids got first place.” Many parents may have been bemused, or even slightly alarmed, by a similar experience — alarmed because we know that, whatever the potential benefits of a classroom where everyone wins, the larger world rarely works that way. Frequently, the world values merit, and our children need to know it.
Evidence of ability has been critical for job selection, promotion, task assignments, and credentialing for centuries and across cultures. A young Hebrew named Joseph rose from serving the captain of the guard to handling the affairs of the Egyptian state on the basis of his ability to interpret dreams, including especially the pharaoh’s. Civil service examinations in China, from the Tang dynasty onward, allowed even impoverished students to win remunerative and responsible appointments. Napoleon replaced advancement on the basis of royalty with a new merit-based system. The success of the United States Navy in the War of 1812 is sometimes credited to the tendency to promote on the basis of naval achievements rather than social status (as in the United Kingdom). Today, for college and job applicants, we try to mitigate non-merit influences such as nepotism, money, and chance by using test results, interviews, résumés, writing samples, and recommendations.
Broad-based and thoroughgoing merit systems may be relatively modern, but they tap into age-old impulses to enhance fairness in outcomes and success in endeavors. Merit, however, has a dark side — and this dark side is profoundly illuminated by Daniel Markovits in his new book, The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feeds Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite. A professor of law at Yale University, Markovits has studied his professional world closely — one that stretches from college applicant to student to job holder — and what he finds is a disturbing picture of merit gone rather berserk.
In broad strokes, here is the picture: the children of the elite class (as opposed to lower and middle class) are placed in a soul-searing competitive race at an early age. They are drilled even when young to prepare diligently for the further training they will undergo in high school, college, and graduate school. This is so they will “merit” what Markovits calls “glossy” rather than “gloomy” jobs; these glossy jobs, required by society’s engines of business, are indeed well remunerated. But, as it turns out, when the job seekers think they have crossed the finish line, the line is suddenly extended. In those glossy jobs, one must still compete and still work the long hours that, ironically, used to be the lot of the working class. Moreover, the elite’s expectations are extreme — with both parents in a marriage working full-time jobs, all the while spending any remaining time (along with huge chunks of their high salaries) juggling their private lives for the sake of their children. And to what end? So that their children can enter the same intensive rat race — the later stages of which they themselves are still suffering.
Thus, the new aristocracy is not based on leisure but rather its absence; the elite work like crazy and boast about it. Journalist Derek Thompson calls this “workism” — the premise that elites have placed work at the center of their identity. But, Thompson maintains, “a culture that funnels its dreams of self-actualization into salaried jobs is setting itself up for collective anxiety, mass disappointment, and inevitable burnout.” This observation dovetails perfectly with the tableau painted by Markovits: adult workers expend all their time leveraging the intense training that has made them valuable; as a result, work is not
an opportunity for self-expression or self-actualization, but rather value extraction. A person whose wealth and status depend almost entirely on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job — far too much rides on training and work to indulge curiosity or pursue a calling or vocation.
Now, Markovits does not ask us to feel sorry for the “super-skilled,” “superordinate” elite who work so hard and make so much money, though in fact he paints them as basically enslaved within a “brilliant vortex of training, skill, industry, and income.” He is more disturbed by the impact of the meritocracy trap on those who never made it that far. The whole process, he claims, diminishes respect and opportunities for the middle- and lower-class workers who can only work in “gloomy” jobs. The value generated by elite workers — e.g., doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers — is simply greater on an hourly basis than that generated by non-elite workers. This is just the way it is, but it is nonetheless unfair. “What is conventionally called merit,” Markovits opines, “is actually an ideological conceit, constructed to launder a fundamentally unjust allocation of advantage.”
Markovits’s description of the meritocratic machine is quite believable, and it casts an intriguing light on our current inequalities. These inequalities include, of course, income and wealth, longevity and health, hours worked, job security, and the division of jobs into glossy and gloomy — the last catalyzed by technology, as Markovits and others have recognized. In response, the author provides a two-pronged prescription for addressing the destructive nature of the meritocracy: education reform to reenable social mobility and tax reform to support middle-class labor.
As might be expected from a law professor, Markovits’s book reads like a powerful brief, but one addressed to the lay reader. His writing is elegant, imaginative, and compelling. Intriguingly, his harsh depiction of both glossy and gloomy jobs jibes with the “anti-work” theorists who argue that, under capitalism, all forms of work entail serious self-loss. As Frédéric Lordon muses (in Gabriel Ash’s translation) in his 2010 book Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire (Capitalisme, désir et servitude: Marx et Spinoza), “[I]t is ultimately quite strange that people should so ‘accept’ to occupy themselves in the service of a desire that was not originally their own.” This precise point is made by Markovits, though in different terms: for him, the trap is the meritocracy itself, while for sociologist Lordon, it is the grinding presence of the “bossing relations” everywhere present in capitalist society.
One point that may not be sufficiently accepted, or in any case stressed, by Markovits is that work is critical to human psychology, and that at least some work is joyful and engaging. Though not all challenges are equal, at least some people, I think, flourish when challenged. Ultimately, then, is Markovits right to insist that merit is a “conceit” or a “sham”? Or, instead, is it a fundamental principle of human society? Certainly, meritocracy as currently expressed and measured is an imperfect system, as Markovits convincingly shows, but it does not necessarily follow that we should abandon hard work in pursuit of a goal.
Of course, a flawed application of merit is no new thing. Consider the scholar Zhong Kui, who in the early Tang dynasty sat for the imperial examinations in the capital city. Though gaining a top score, he was denied recognition for some arbitrary reason (perhaps his unprepossessing appearance). In retaliation, he committed suicide by slamming his head into the palace gates. But his merit would not be denied: as the legend relates, Yan, the king of death, recognizing Zhong Kui’s excellence, promotes him to an administrative role among the ghosts of the underworld. There, wearing the dignified robes of an official, he carries out his duties to this day.
George M. Alliger is an industrial/organizational psychologist and a fellow of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology. Co-author of Knowledge Management: Clarifying the Key Issues (2000) and an editor of The Handbook of Work Analysis (2012), he is also author or co-author of over 60 articles in peer-reviewed journals.