As I See It: De-Meritocracy
September 30, 2019 Victor Rozek
I don’t recall high school being a particularly joyous experience, but it wasn’t debilitating either. It was mostly leaden, with an occasional splash of color, spiced with alternating doses of bravado, awkwardness, and frustration. It wasn’t optimal, but it seems remarkably benign compared to today’s reality. A recent study of kids in an affluent Silicon Valley high school “found that 54 percent of students displayed moderate to severe symptoms of depression and 80 percent displayed moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety.”
Beyond the very real anxiety-inducing possibility of getting shot in the classroom, Daniel Markovits has another explanation for the malaise besetting the children of the well-to-do: the pressures of meritocracy. He should know, having spent nearly 15 years in institutions such as the London School of Economics, Oxford, Harvard, and Yale Law School, where he now teaches, chasing degree certificates in sufficient numbers to wallpaper his study.
Back in the 1960s, meritocracy was initially embraced as a cure for restricted opportunity and economic inequality. Students would be granted admission to elite universities “based on achievement, rather than breeding.” In places like Yale, it had an ancillary aim of breaching the domination of top universities by what Markovits calls the “hereditary elite.” It was a no-brainer: the scales weighted toward those entitled by wealth and legacy would be balanced by a generation of eager, hard-working commoners. The privileged educational playing field would finally be leveled; merit, not caste, would determine admission.
Well, not so much.
As with many well-meaning initiatives, there was an initial spurt of success until unintended consequences set it. Competition became so desperate and so fierce that Markovits, writing in The Atlantic, posits that meritocracy ended up not only duping the people it was designed to help, but punishing those who it actually favors.
At stake are careers in the most prestigious and best compensated fields: jobs on Wall Street, in banking, medicine, law, and high tech; working for firms that only recruit top graduates from the likes of Stanford, Harvard, and Yale.
Which may explain why there was such widespread outrage at the recent admissions scandal. For those with superior means but average children, bribery usurped merit as the central admissions criteria, and those without the means to bribe were justifiably resentful.
The growing anger toward institutions of higher learning may also explain this extraordinary statistic. Markovits cites a Pew Research Center study in which nearly three-fifths of Republicans report believing that “colleges and universities are bad for America.” That certainly doesn’t bode well for the future of the country but it does, in part, explain why Red states are consistently among the poorest in the nation.
Resentment, however, is understandable when it’s fueled by exclusion. Markovits reports that “only one out of every 100 children born into the poorest fifth of households, and fewer than one out of every 50 children born into the middle fifth, will join the top 5 percent.” And middle class kids are less than half as likely to out-earn their parents. “Meritocracy,” says Markovits, “frames this exclusion as a failure to measure up, adding a moral insult to economic injury.”
But even when cheating isn’t involved, Markovits insists that the core of the problem is a meritocracy system that favors the rich. “Children whose parents make more than $200,000 a year score about 250 points higher on the SAT than children whose parents make $40,000 to $60,000.” They simply live in households with more exposure to, and more emphasis on, education. Rich parents want their kids to succeed; poor parents just want them to get a job. Only one in 200 kids from the poorest third of households will produce SAT scores that reach Yale’s median level. Which might not be high enough to gain them admission.
A combination of intense competition and increased population has resulted in a flood of applications and a lower percentage of admissions. Markovits reports that, on average, elite universities which not long ago accepted 30 percent of applicants, now admit less than 10 percent. And those figures sound generous when compared to the University of Chicago that admitted “71 percent of its applicants as recently as 1995.” But in 2019 “admitted less than 6 percent.”
In the meantime, while normal toddlers play and nap, affluent parents prepare their kids for privileged futures by placing them in elite kindergartens, where at age 4 they are tested for their worthiness, and if admitted, are pushed to excel. Small wonder Silicon Valley high school students report high levels of depression and anxiety. In fact, those levels are about three times the national average for their peer group. Wealthy students, reports Markovits, also show “higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse than poor students do.”
Assuming the meritocrats survive their educational experience, the expectations heaped upon them are just beginning. Elite jobs with elite salaries have elite expectations. Doctors, who have among the highest suicide rates of any profession, are obliged to work 32-hour shifts, denied sufficient time to eat or even hydrate. Taking time off or seeking psychological assistance with the death and trauma that surrounds them, brings their fitness as physicians into doubt.
In the 1960s, the American Bar Association estimated there were “approximately 1,300 fee-earning hours per year.” By the turn of the century, major law firms expected 2,400 billable hours from new-hires with any hope of advancement. That, says Markovits, “could easily require working from 8:00 a.m. until 8:00 p.m. six days a week, every week of the year without vacation or sick days.” As for investment bankers, hundred-hour weeks are not uncommon.
Markovits’ point is that “a person who extracts income and status from his own human capital places himself, quite literally, at the disposal of others – he uses himself up.” Thus, the very people who profit most from meritocracy find themselves trapped by its requirements. They can’t stop excelling. Higher salaries and greater status means more responsibility, more work, putting in more hours – the carrot always just out of reach.
In the process much is sacrificed: family, friendships, personal passions, a rich inner life. Time only to keep proving your merit. Ironically, people caught in “the meritocracy trap” (which happens to be the title of Markovits’ book on the subject) probably feel resentful toward people who have the luxury of living more “normal” lives.
The disparity of opportunity, the economic inequity, the mutual disdain between castes has created a perfect storm of volatile conditions. Markovits reminds us that, historically, the end product of excessive privilege has been either social collapse, or revolution.
For a nation that likes to believe that everyone rises or falls on merit alone, Markovits’ pill is hard to swallow. It was Nietzsche who observed: “Arrogance on the part of the meritorious is even more offensive to us than the arrogance of those without merit: for merit itself is offensive.” I am not sure Markovits would go that far, but he would concur that it doesn’t seem to be working well for anyone.