Nobody wants to be operated on by someone who has failed their surgery exams. Everybody wants the best qualified person for the job, especially important jobs (even the post-war British sociologist Michael Young, the scourge of meritocracy, conceded this point). Hierarchies based on competence must trump hierarchies based on wealth or good connections. In that limited sense we are all meritocrats now.
But who wants to live in a meritocratic society in which only the most able succeed and everyone else feels like a failure? Meritocratic selection for jobs is common sense but a meritocratic society needs to be balanced by other principles: equality, democracy, a sense that everyone is making a valuable contribution.
It is easy to see why meritocracy has gone out of fashion in recent years. Meritocracy, equal opportunity, and social mobility became motherhood-and-apple-pie principles just at the time when income inequality was roaring ahead in the eighties and nineties, especially in the US and UK. It might even be said to have helped to legitimise those big increases in inequality.
Meritocracy turns out to be something that is better to strive for than to achieve. In a free society in which parents are able to hand on at least some of their advantages to their children, it can quickly ossify into a kind of oligarchy. As the American philosopher Tim Sommers puts it: ‘Even if you don’t mind the tyranny of the talented, just wait, it will become the tyranny of the talented’s children.’
So, we are left with a quandary. Meritocratic selection for top jobs is a sine qua non but a meritocratic society is both unachievable and undesirable.
The way round the problem that I prefer (and that is spelt out in my book Head, Hand, Heart: The Struggle for Dignity and Status in the 21st Century) is to focus on broadening what we mean by merit. If the goal is to allow the most able to rise to their appropriate stations without disgruntling everyone else, then we need a broader idea of what it means to be skilled and valuable. We need to see other forms of intelligence and capability – manual-technical, or emotional-caring – as just as valuable as the cognitive and analytical.
Since I went to university in the late 1970s we have been moving in the opposite direction. Narrow academic achievement and progression into cognitive-professional occupations – the cognitive meritocracy – has been the gold standard of human esteem. And there has been a single ladder up into this world through elite universities.
But I am pleased to report that the tide is turning. The British-based Social Market Foundation think-tank recently asked parents whether they would prefer their 18-year-old child to get a vocational qualification or go to university. Vocational qualification won 48 per cent to 37 per cent. This is a remarkable turnaround reflecting both disillusionment with mass higher education at a time when the number of higher professional jobs is no longer growing, and a sense that there are many different ways to find a rewarding job and life.
And, anecdotally, I keep meeting friends and acquaintances, usually from affluent and educated backgrounds, whose children are either delaying university or giving up on it altogether in favour of a technical apprenticeship or becoming an artisanal cheese-maker.
All four of my own children went to Russell Group universities. It did not suit them all, but it was just seen at the time as the automatic passage. I like to think if my kids were approaching 18 today, I would advise at least some of them to choose a different path.
Perhaps, I would suggest spending six months doing a coding course and then find decently paid work in a digital start-up. If you are intellectually curious and want to understand more about software then apply for a computer science degree later, in your late 20s or early 30s, when you will get far more out of it.
We still need brilliant people to push back the boundaries of knowledge but it is only ever a tiny number of people who can do that. For the rest of us, a broader understanding of merit will allow us to apply it as a labour market principle, without it becoming an all-encompassing social ideal.