The rise and reproduction of meritocracy

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?

7 thoughts on “The rise and reproduction of meritocracy

  1. Educated parents instill values in their children that are likely to lead them to success. From your last graph, it seems that people are becoming much more aware of the proportion of their success which is inherited. So I don’t see that there’s anything “worse” about this. It’s different from how it was before, but because the values you inherit are much harder to lose than money but (at least for the time being) relatively easier to gain than significant amounts of wealth, so I don’t know if it’s worse than before.

    (In any case, what is the moral imperative in social mobility? Just because we are all made out of the same stuff doesn’t mean we should all have the same options in life. I don’t mean it’s bad if we do, but I think it’s more important that we make sure people have meaning in life and are emotionally, mentally and spiritually healthy.)


  2. “In any case, what is the moral imperative in social mobility?”

    True, mobility should not personally be seen as a goal in itself if someone is content. But given that many people want to advance themselves, it is desirable that typically these opportunities are available in society more broadly.


  3. Having educated parents is a pretty good proxy for having intelligent parents. Given rich countries IQ is about 70% inherited, we have strong positive assortative mating, and intelligence strongly determining incomes, you don’t have to look many generations ahead to a world that is both very immobile and very ‘meritocratic’!
    For better or worse I think genetic engineering of humans (starting with embryo selection) will be with us quite soon. Whether the divergence continues depends on how much more available and effective this tech is for wealth and intelligent elites than everyone else.


  4. If race, relegion and gender differences are getting less and less important in making a few extra dollars, how do we explain the rise and rise of the PC brigade and the every expanding regulation and guilt trips!
    Seriously if I have to write ‘appreciate diversity’ one more time on a HR document, I will seriously…well I don’t know, but it’s bloody stupid.
    And while we’re at it (including with a ‘for gawd sakes’), I hate hearing whingers blaming their station in life on their race.


  5. I have no evidence but I think the ‘old rich’ definitely thought that they deserved their privileges. I would say many of the newer rich either feel guilt about their material success rather than smugness or kid themselves into believing that others could get there if given the right opportunities.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s