Image: MChe Lee/Unsplash
Image: MChe Lee/Unsplash

Why meritocracy is a myth

The idea of meritocracy in the UK is undoubtedly a myth – at least to me. As of 2019, over a third of the Tory cabinet was privately educated, and 57% went to either Oxford or Cambridge university. This shows us how the cards a person is dealt at birth have the potential to affect the course of the rest of their lives. Those who do succeed despite the odds are spotlighted as parables of progress, but the important element of this to consider is the nature of the odds individuals are up against. In a country with deep-set social inequality, is it realistic to strive for a system that isn’t rigged in favour of the privileged?

Studies show that this initiative had considerable health benefits for children in poorer neighbourhoods

Despite ever-growing inequalities in the UK, many Britons do believe that success is in fact based purely on merit. A February 2021 survey revealed that hard work and ambition are perceived as the most important factors in a person’s success, significantly more influential than family status and demographic traits such as race and gender. But is hard work truly all it takes? If we look at government policy, there’s an awareness of a society that is in fact not meritocratic.

In the UK, government initiatives such as Sure Start, an early learning centre, pledged to help children from working-class families in their cognitive development with the aim of creating a relatively level playing field by the time the child starts school. Studies on the effects of Sure Start show that this initiative had considerable health benefits for children in poorer neighbourhoods. However, middle-class families soon got wind of these centres.

If we look at initiatives like these as demonstrative of wider society, we see the cultural advantages middle and upper-class families have. The way a person might speak, dress, and their level of education are collectively known as cultural capital and can all help improve one’s social standing. These social assets are most often seen in people from privileged backgrounds and are not easily transferable over a short period of time.

Not long after the inception of Sure Start, middle-class families began taking advantage of the programme. In 2006, The Times wrote that the number of middle-class parents using the service was deterring working-class families from attending.

Should we even strive to create a meritocratic society?

The way in which cultural capital is kept within middle-class families perpetuates social inequalities. When it comes to private schools, these institutions facilitate the development of a middle or upper-class cultural capital. This way of thinking has proven to benefit private school children throughout their further education, and subsequent careers. For example, studies have found that privately educated children tend to enjoy better access to universities, and better career outcomes upon graduating. Social systems in the UK that reward through wealth further perpetuate pre-existing inequalities. For example, the decision to raise the inheritance threshold enables wealthy families to pass on their privilege to their children in a material as well as a cultural sense.

But then again, should we even strive to create a meritocratic society? Across the UK political spectrum, every party values the prosperity of its people. What differs, however, is their view on how this can be achieved. I could assert that Conservatives do believe that society is meritocratic, with figures such as Thatcher being a great promoter of social mobility, claiming to “not care two hoots about what your background is”, but highlighting the importance of individualised hard work over all else when it comes to an individual’s success.

Given this, the question is: how can we make a fairer society? It is clear that the UK is not a meritocratic society, so acknowledging the privileges certain children are afforded from birth is an important aspect of tackling inequalities that establish themselves over the course of that child’s life. Initiatives, such as Sure Start, initially saw significant improvements in the health and development of children in deprived areas. It is clear that investment into deprived communities is an effective way of combatting inequality. Neoliberal capitalism in this country has created a culture of hyperindividualism, effectively blaming the deprived for their deprivation. The lack of government support in the name of avoiding the ‘nanny state’ is responsible for phenomena such as multi-generational unemployment. An awareness of this is necessary in order to encourage a culture of community care.

As the rich get richer, the social ladder grows ever longer. Attempts at providing equal opportunity, such as blind admissions processes and non-discriminatory hiring practices do nothing to truly tackle the roots of class and racial bias in this country. Upward social mobility has been framed as a moral obligation, which arguably, only alienates deprived communities further. The delusion of meritocracy has divided and hyper-individualised UK society for far too long, and those of us who have benefitted from this system, must work hard to create a country that provides opportunity for everyone.


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