Australians like the idea of meritocracy – the idea that rewards should allocated on the basis of ability and effort. Meritocracy is often contrasted with rewards being based on luck or privilege. In an unmeritocratic society, rewards go to people who are already privileged.
Some overlapping questions from the Australian component of the 1992 International Social Science Survey and the 2009 Australian Survey of Social Attitudes let us see how perceptions of opportunity in Australia have changed.
The question are about ‘opportunities for getting ahead’, and ask how important various characteristics are. Most Australians see race and gender as ‘not very important’ or ‘not important at all’ for getting ahead. Indeed, there has been a dramatic change in perceptions of how important race is in getting ahead.
By contrast, hard work is seen as ‘essential or very important’ to getting ahead. It was seen this way by the vast majority in 1992, and by an even larger majority in 2009.
Correctly in my view, Australians perceive a person’s own education as increasingly important to getting ahead. Nearly 80% in 2009, up from 70% in 1992, think of education this way.
After race, the most interesting change is in perceptions of the importance of parents. Perceptions of the importance of having wealthy parents are essentially unchanged. But more people believe that the education of your parents is important to getting ahead. In 2009 nearly 40% of respondents thought that having educated parents was essential or very important to getting ahead, up significantly on 1992. But even then parental education was perceived as being more important than parental wealth.
It is results like this which help explain why few people who have thought seriously about meritocracy – from Michael Young (who coined the term) on the left to Charles Murray on the right – give the idea more than qualified support.
As intelligence and education increasingly dominate the distribution of rewards, the risk is that we end up with a class system that is less mobile than the one before it. The new upper class, the educated, pass on privileges to their children, as before. But with dwindling jobs for the less skilled, and still more jobs restricted through unnecessary credentialism, it is harder for the under-privileged to haul themselves up.
Worse, the meritocrats at the top believe that they deserve their privileges, making them more arrogant than the old upper class who realised that they were there partly or entirely through luck.
Most of the evidence suggests that Australian society still offers reasonable chances of social mobility. But will it last?