Should we stop talking about meritocracy?

We wake up every day with a goal in our minds. It varies per person, but there is an inner spark that compels us to get out of bed, to work, to study, to strive. Within us, there’s a goal, a promise to be fulfilled.

“Give it your best shot” we were told ad nauseam since we were kids. Try hard and you will achieve things. That’s the promise. There’s no chance it won’t happen. We are taught that effort, dedication, resilience, and tireless work are the tools to achieve success. Or at least, to avoid failure.

Striving makes you worthy, deserving of every good. How can I not be rewarded if I have worked so hard? It seems that someday, our efforts will be measured by some almighty entity. It will become a merit. An abstract score that we can redeem for a final reward.

It sounds fair – To pay and reward those who work hard, let merits speak for themselves. But what if we stop and do a quick personal exercise?

What are those merits that brought us to where we stand? By what yardstick have they been measured? Who is deserving and who is not?

The power of merit


There is a term for this system: meritocracy. You’ve probably heard it before. From the Latin merĭtum, value, merit or salary and kratos, power. The power of merit.

The term came about in 1958, thanks to Michael Young and his dystopian fiction novel, “The Rise of the Meritocracy”. In it, Michael imagines the United Kingdom in a future where intelligence and merit have a huge influence, thereby attempting to replace the current social class divide. Ironically, creating a new elite and underclass who inherited their position to their offspring. A “perfect” system where both classes were convinced they deserved their position based on merit.

The thing got a little out of control since then. And the term has been evolving and transforming depending on who uses it, from politics to literature. It’s not hard to find discussions on the internet about whether criticizing the meritocratic system is useful or not. If I stop making an effort, am I being mediocre, if I complain about my disadvantages, am I being resentful, what’s wrong with making an effort and seeking merits using the social advantages I was born with? 

Michael Sandel, philosopher, and Harvard Law professor, explains that meritocracy is a problem of attitude towards success:

“Meritocracy leads to dividing people into winners and losers. Meritocracy creates arrogance among the winners and humiliation toward those left behind.”

“That’s the way the system works, by nature no one is equal, and we have to live with that,” some say to close once and for all a subject loaded with politics, economics, and morals. Does it make sense to talk about meritocracy in a system that seems to have no remedy?

The losers & the winners


When we speak about failure, we inevitably speak of success, even for some people, one depends on the other. Following that duality, those who participate in that dynamic are labeled as either the winners or the losers. There are no half measures, you are either one or the other, and it’s a definite status until you fight to change that. 

If we used to make judgments according to what we achieved or not, with meritocracy and the hard work culture, we now peek into processes and attempts. You’ve already failed even before losing because you’re not trying hard enough. Mind you, success tastes better. Whether it’s because of hard work, privilege, or luck.

We have to be careful when we talk about merits and privilege. Sandel mentions as well the division that meritocracy has generated. The winners look down on the losers, who according to the fair rules of meritocracy, are there because they chose to be there. This system is flexible, not making an effort is a choice. And the losers look up to the winners. They got there because of the vicious circle of selective meritocracy that only gives tools to those who can and have the wherewithal.

Meritocracy tastes like justice: it promises (but doesn´t guarantee) a positive outcome for our efforts, but it perpetuates individualistic and selfish notions that can damage our perception of others. It feeds an obsession with being deserving or undeserving. And gives us the feeling that we can apply our own value systems to others without considering their contexts.

What if we don’t earn merits, and we are actually born with them? If our skin color, nationality, gender, religion, etc are going to define how valid and easily attainable our efforts will be, I don’t think we should keep talking about meritocracies. We should stop talking about meritocracy and start talking about privilege and class consciousness. 

According to a study, people are more generous, tolerant, and willing to share when a reward was obtained by “luck”, versus when that same reward was obtained because they “earned it” or worked hard. Is it that meritocracy gives us the right to not share opportunities?

We should stop talking about meritocracy, leave doors open, encourage others to cross them, share the key to those that are closed, and welcome anyone who wants to cross them.

Edited by Santiago da Silva Évora


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Content & typos creator. Rich runs Fuckup Nights blog, newsletter & social media. He probably posted this blog by himself, and thinks it’s awkward to write his own bio. Fuckuppin’s mom.