It was determined by history that people need a belief based upon which they would build their present and future. Here is where the need for formulating various concepts of society derives from. One of the popular approaches to defining society is that of the meritocratic society.
First coined by Michael Young in his 1958 book named The Rise of Meritocracy, this conception is a combination of merit and aristocracy. Merit, broadly speaking, is a prominent value distinguishing one between the others and a will and hard work to use them as a tool for achieving success in life, and aristocracy is the upper class of the society who are the most privileged. In general, meritocracy is an aristocracy based on merit and ignoring kinship1.
That said, meritocracy or a meritocratic society is a type of society in which those who have talents and extraordinary intellectual abilities and skills will achieve success in life and, what is more, reach the leading and ruling positions in their community regardless of their family ties and background2.
According to the postulates of this approach to defining society, those who are the brightest and the most hard-working and persistent will occupy the highest positions in the society whether it be ruling a little group of people, an organization or a whole country. Generally speaking, meritocracy is:
A principle of allocation of people to positions in the socio-economic hierarchy, typically jobs. … The theory is that meritocracy offers a ‘ladder of opportunity’, on which everyone has an equal chance to climb as far as their ‘merit’ permits.3
Meritocratic society operates based on several principles, as initially defined by Michael Young in his book. First of all, meritocracy requires administrative tool controlling the redistribution of human talent. That means that there should be specially authorised organization testing people’s unique abilities and skills before they occupy their positions in the society.
Generally speaking, it means that there should be a special network of examinations and that certain position requires a certain set of skills, so prior to entering it, the potential occupant should be tested for having such skills. Second, the skills mentioned above should be fixed and unchangeable.
It does not mean that they remain the same over centuries; instead, they change once in a while so that they correspond to the needs of certain historical epoch but what remains unchangeable is the high level of knowledge and talent required for taking up higher appointments.
Third, there is no place for competition in a perfect meritocracy. This principle may sound a little weird if thinking about the very essence of the meritocratic approach but it is believed that administrative procedures have no defects thus eradicating competition as such. It may be explained by the fact that people are redistributed according to their abilities and talents so that they believe that they are exactly where they deserve to be thus there is no need to compete with others and prove that they are better than others4.
Such a conception of society is a source of particular problems. First and foremost, meritocracy as such leads to socio-economic inequality in the society. From the theoretical perspective, it is viewed as the path towards equal opportunities but the practice has proven that society cannot operate when based on merit.
Instead, family ties and the background, not intellectual abilities or unique skills, are the criteria for determining chances for success. It may be easily explained by one simple fact – those who have already occupied high positions in the society do not want their children to hold lower ones thus blocking access to the talented people without the similar background5.
The second challenge is the problem of defining the merit as such. As the times have changed, one new element was added to the concept of merit. It is that of kinship as it was already mentioned above. That said, as long as society values prestige and family ties instead of creative and intellectual potential, it cannot function and develop as a meritocracy in its traditional sense.
The third problem of such a conception of the society is that living in the meritocratic conditions people are taught that inequality is justifiable. The reason for this belief lies in the definition of merit as such6. As long as people believe that they do not have the opportunity to obtain certain positions without certain skills or talents and that they deserve to be exactly where they are, they do not have the desire to change this reality, self-evolve, and reach new horizons.
Many may believe that meritocracies are as dead as Julius Caesar but, in fact, they are not the tales of the past. Nowadays most developed societies consider themselves to be meritocratic, as they believe that there are equal opportunities to succeed in life for everyone who has talent and works hard.
Moreover, they claim that the harder you work, the higher you get, and, of course, your talent and intellectual and creative potential are the only things that limit you in climbing the ladder. Together with that, people in the developed societies stress that they totally ignore the person’s background and family ties if he or she demonstrates yearning to succeed in life and has unique skills.
Britain in this sense is not an exception, and it is a meritocratic society. In general, most people stick to a concept of merit. What is more, today, it almost does not matter what class you come from or what your ethnic background is because if you are talented and persistent, the possibility of achieving success is high. More than that, you are most likely to achieve the position your skills allow you to, so everyone in the society occupies exactly the right place.
What is more prominent is that there have been many positive shifts in the movement towards perfect meritocratic society such as elevating a barrier of class. That means that birth in a working-class family, for example, does not preclude a talented person from gaining higher education and becoming a citizen of high-status.
Regardless of the positive developments mentioned above class still matters in the overall setting of one’s life. It originates from the parents’ love and their desire to help their children find the best possible place in life not from stressing that class is a barrier to intellectual and creative development.
That said, parents might want to let their kids attend the most prestigious schools they can afford thus granting them certain merits in life7 as education has become one of them. What is more, they may help their children occupy particular positions thus inverting the natural course of meritocracy.
Parents’ interference with their children’s lives is what is one of the main preclusions to perfect meritocracy. It should be said, however, that this statement is only fair in the case of high-status families, especially those occupying the highest ruling positions in the society. In most cases today, those who hold them cannot make a boast of their social status as they have it due to their background.
It does not mean that they do not have any merits at all; it only means that, in the case they had not had the status of their family, they would not have been where they currently are since their skills and talents do not correspond to it. That said, the desire of the parents especially those who are involved in politics and ruling the country to prevent their children from falling is what keeps British society from achieving a state of perfect meritocracy.
Together with that, universal access to education including school and higher education is what is often viewed as a preclusion to build a perfect meritocratic society in its traditional sense. There is a point of view that the ability to obtain education should not be universal, as it inverts the natural course of the development of meritocracy because it is a primary source of inequality in the society8.
The main argument in favour of this statement is that there is inequality in the ability of families to help their children with gaining the education and that the one with more prestigious education occupies better positions of higher status regardless of the level of knowledge, skills, and talent.
I am strongly inclined to believe that even though there are many problems deriving from the meritocratic concept of society, there is one promising opportunity of the present times that can help return to the meritocratic society in its traditional sense. With the outburst of information and communication technologies and the overall shift to the knowledge-driven world, those without family ties with the highest circles of the community have gotten their chance to succeed in life with the help of their skills and talents.
Since higher education has become available to nearly anyone and is no longer a prerogative of the privileged ones, the educational system has become that administratively authorised unit that can control the redistribution of talent. I do believe in it because education leads to inequality in society not in the case of different level of the college prestige but in the case if some people had the opportunity to obtain the higher education because of their family’s status in the society, and others had not.
When everyone is equal in access to education, even though the level of prestige differs, there emerges the possibility of equality because all that as the end results matters is not the name of the college indicated on the diploma but the level of knowledge and whether a person has skills needed for feeling the position.
That said, the level of education has become one more merit. Of course, those enjoying the advantage of kinship will occupy most ruling positions but people with high intellectual abilities and robust creative potential will find their way to attaining a high place.
One more argument in favour of the meritocracy of British society is the Queen’s Honour system9. It may be considered to be out in the left field but, in fact, meritocracy is about being rewarded for unique skills and persistent work.
With this in mind, Queen’s system of Honours proves that there is some other way to reward people rather than the career, power, and money and that those who work for the good of their country should be titled and remembered. Together with the system of rewards, it also demonstrates the hierarchy in the society with being knighted as a symbol of reaching the highest ladder of it or the highest rank possible.
So, British society is just one little step away from becoming a perfect meritocracy. Since the end of World War II, there have been many positive shifts in achieving social justice and equality such as carrying out various reforms aimed at eradicating barriers keeping talented and skilled people away from becoming successful and obtaining high status in society.
It should be said that taking one last step towards transforming in a perfectly meritocratic society may be even harder than all those previous ones that have already been taken, as it would mean that those occupying the highest ruling positions would let their children live their lives by means of their own unique character traits, knowledge, and persistence, i.e. their merits.
Bearing in mind everything that was mentioned above building a society based on meritocratic approach is only possible in the case if every next generation forgets about the success and status of the current generation and starts its way from the very beginning with their intellectual and creative potential as the only criteria for achieving set objectives. It, to my mind, is impossible due to the human’s nature, as the parents always want their children to have the best conditions for living their lives.
The only option that might be possible in such case is creating conditions for fair competition in the society even though it is contrary to the postulates of the meritocratic society. I can explain it by providing the statement that without the competition there is no opportunity for achieving equality, as there are people who might have similar skills and talents so there should be a way of choosing it.
So, developing competitive atmosphere together with education may become that administrative tool for redistributing human talent that is necessary for meritocratic society in it traditional sense.
Allen, Ansgar, ‘Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: A Philosophical Critique’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 367-382.
Bloodworth, James, ‘Meritocracy is a Myth‘, Independent (2014). Web.
Duru-Bellat, Marie., Tenret, Elise., ‘Who’s for Meritocracy? Individual and Contextual Variations in the Faith’, Comparative Education Review, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 223-247.
Gelman, Andrew, “Meritocracy Won’t Happen: The Problem with the ‘Ocracy’”, Washington Post (2014). Web.
Lister, Ruth, ‘Ladder of Opportunity of Engine of Inequality?’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, pp. 232-234.
Saunders, Peter, ‘Meritocracy and Popular Legitimacy’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, pp. 183-194.
Strong, Roy, ‘England’s Class System is a Meritocracy‘, The Telegraph (2014). Web.
Wooldridge, Adrian, Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England C. 1860-c.1990 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
1 Adrian Wooldridge, Measuring the Mind: Education and Psychology in England C.1860-c.1990, p. 166.
2 Peter Saunders, ‘Meritocracy and Popular Legitimacy’, The Political Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, p. 183.
3 Ruth Lister, ‘Ladder of Opportunity of Engine of Inequality?’ The Political Quarterly, vol. 77, no. 1, 2006, p. 232.
4 Ansgar Allen, ‘Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy: A Philosophical Critique’, British Journal of Educational Studies, vol. 59, no. 4, pp. 370-374.
5 Andrew Gelman, ”Meritocracy Won’t Happen: The Problem with the ‘Ocracy’”, Washington Post.
6 Marie Duru-Bellat & Elise Tenret, ‘Who’s for Meritocracy? Individual and Contextual Variations in the Faith’, Comparative Education Review, vol. 56, no. 2, p. 223.
7 Peter Saunders, ‘Meritocracy and Popular Legitimacy’, p. 183.
8 James Bloodworth, ‘Meritocracy is a Myth’, Independent.
9 Roy Strong, ‘England’s Class System is a Meritocracy’, The Telegraph.