Clause 61: The Pushback Blog

Because ideas have consequences

Meritocracy and Its Discontents

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I have had a couple of signals that made me reflect on the influence of meritocracy, or what passes for it, upon current political events.

The first was an article this week, “What So Many People Don’t Get About the U.S. Working Class” by Joan C. Williams in the Harvard Business Review.

One little-known element of [the class culture] gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids “who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,” said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo. Barbara Ehrenreich recalled in 1990 that her blue-collar dad “could not say the word doctor without the virtual prefix quack. Lawyers were shysters…and professors were without exception phonies.” Annette Lareau found tremendous resentment against teachers, who were perceived as condescending and unhelpful.
— Williams

The interactions that working class people have with professionals are a source of friction:

For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day.
— Williams

And the professionals are often not very gracious about it.

The other was David Brooks on Meet the Press this morning. He identified several items that he felt he needed to do some rethinking on as a result of this election outcome, and one of them was meritocracy. I realize that David Brooks is a subject of discussion all by himself, and I do not intend to venture into that subject here.

Two points define a line, and I starting thinking about that line.


When I was growing up, seniority was much more important than meritocracy. There were many instances in the working world that were ruled by seniority. People didn’t care how smart or capable someone supposedly was; he waited his turn like everyone else.

Starting in the mid-80s, as the employment relationship began to be radically redefined in practice, seniority was displaced as a criterion for evaluation, advancement and even retention of employees. In the eyes of many people, this was a betrayal.

Certainly, the people who had put in the time and were due, under the seniority system, to finally get their reward had the rug yanked out from under them. But there was a larger issue many of us missed. One of the promises of the seniority system was that, no matter who you were, you had a chance to rise if you followed the rules and put in your time. A system based on merit does not offer this.

I acknowledge that I was not a supporter of the seniority system and was happy to see the back of it. I expected that I would prosper under a merit-based system, where I would be blocked under a seniority system. But there was another issue I had not reckoned with.

Who Determines Merit?

Those of us who come up through engineering, technology or other skill-based vocations often have several romantic notions about our participation in these vocations:

  • The difference between being good and being God-awful is reality observable, not only to ourselves but to others;
  • The difference we emphasize in skills should be emphasized by others as well, particularly by those who pay the bills.

An example of this is the saying that “a great software developer can be 10 times as productive as a bad software developer.” However, there is no agreement on what makes a great software developer, although there are plenty of ideas on what is a bad software developer. Furthermore, how many employers who are not in the software business could even take advantage of that incremental productivity?

The point we tended to miss was that merit was going to be determined by other people, often having their own agendas. While, under seniority, the criteria were out in the open, merit systems are wide open to manipulation by those in charge of the criteria.

The College Degree

When I started working, you could get a good job in a Fortune 500 corporation having a degree in anything. Sociology, comparative religions, art history — it really didn’t matter. You had proven you could adapt yourself to the standards of an organization and meet its requirements, and there was every reason to expect you would be able to do so again. The company would carry you for the two years or so you needed to unlearn the norms of college, learn the norms of the workplace and become a productive employee. People recognized that a college graduate was not a finished adult and employment was the final step in a person’s education, although they didn’t talk about it much.

The people you had to pass through to get that degree could be arrogant as all hell. How many people had to sit through classes by tenured teachers who were indifferent to whether they were even comprehensible to the students? “You have to get past us to get your degree,” their attitudes said, “and you will take anything we dish out.”

But, starting around 1985, corporate downsizing began in earnest. By 1990, there was more job growth in women-owned companies than in the large publicly-traded companies. The companies that were doing the hiring were smaller and didn’t have the slack to carry new hires for two years while they learned how to carry their own weight. With leaner management structures than the Fortune 500 had, there was no one to learn from. It was a completely changed work environment.

Among other formative experiences gone missing, there was no one to take a snotty 22-year-old aside and point out that, “your success depends on the voluntary cooperation of the people you clearly look down on.” There was no explain the facts of corporate life to people, the way my elders had done for me. If you withhold information from the new hire, maybe she will be behind you on the performance curve in the next round of layoffs. Now the forward edge of that age cohort is in their early 40s, working its way through management.

People still talk about college like it’s middle-class finishing school, but often it is not. Moreover, the role of the first employer in completing the young adult’s education has gone unfilled. The result is employers reluctant to bring in recent college graduates. Employers also find college graduates to be lacking in engagement. Thirty-five years ago, there were not an abundance of focused and driven college graduates; there was a system that could accept, steer and direct them. That system is gone.

I am not discussing the fact that the cost of a college degree has increased at twice the rate of inflation over the period because that increase in costs does not seem to have slowed down college attendance. There are more people than ever with whom one has to compete. A college degree is no longer a differentiator. What to do?


When I started working, there was something called a Certified Data Processor. That was not a device; it was a credential. Many people I worked with lived in blissful ignorance of its existence. Those of us who knew about it didn’t take it seriously. Some people did, and obtained the certification. I never saw a job ad that required it, or even one that said “certification preferred.”

Now, credentials have exploded. The bad economy of the past 15 years scared a lot of people, who invested in credentials. Hiring is now completely credential-happy. People are even trying to float credentials for economists.

Yet success in obtaining credentials has not got any closer to success in applying knowledge to solve problems than it was in the early days of the CDP. I have worked with many people who want to use their credentials to build themselves into overhead positions as armchair quarterbacks, telling the rest of us how we’re doing it wrong. Just because a person has a credential, it does not follow that the person can use the body of knowledge for which the credential claims mastery to solve a real-life problem.

Paul Krugman offers specious, politicized explanations of where worker productivity went. I lived through the change, and I can tell you: when you’re carrying a whole lot of credentialed overhead, it won’t be good for productivity.

This was not the way we thought meritocracy was going to play out. Like a lot of the changes since 1985 — eliminating layers of middle managers springs to mind — this has been a massive disappointment.

Even when you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.
source unknown

What did we get from this supposed movement to meritocracy? The people who couldn’t keep up got pushed aside into the underemployment ditch. The rest of us got a treadmill of credentials and continuing education requirements, mostly at our own expense. We got a career tournament, a negative-sum game. We got a work environment where careers are mean, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.



Written by srojak

November 13, 2016 at 12:18 pm

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