Status Anxiety and the Pitfalls of the Meritocratic System

Society has imbued us of the thought that “anything is possible”, school posters boasted to “achieve the impossible”, teachers hound students that doing well in school means doing well later in life; is this all true? The basis of our meritocratic society would say yes, yet reality says no.

The point of a meritocracy is to let people advance through the ranks of society through merit—their talent, abilities, personality, intelligence etc. It is a well known fact, however, that people are regularly put into positions of power through connections instead of merit. Over the years society has become polarized into a meritocracy, entrenching inequality.

Michael Young, the author of The Rise of Meritocracy, a novel satirizing meritocracy in 1958, wrote an article in the Guardian in 2001 stating:

It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others. …

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancements come from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side. So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied. As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes.

The problem which eventually arises from meritocracy is status anxiety. Since the moment you are born everyone hails you with how you can achieve the impossible. What happens,however, when you don’t? If you study hard in school, do well at university, but end up at a dead-end job. Society says you failed. Society says you had all the chance in the world, and you failed, you deserve to be at this dead-end job.


Back in the middle-ages everyone knew the system was rigged. As a peasant, one knew that the people in power are in power simply because of their family lineage. One knew that the system relied on peasants and their hard labor to keep it running. This lead to the spectacular collapse of such society’s in the form of The American and French Revolutions, which in particular wanted to rid itself of such a hierarchical society. Yet, even so it did not end up equal. Up until the early 20th century you still had to be of a particular social class to make it big in society. There was more room for merit—yet the differentiation of “New Wealth” and “Old Wealth” mean that even if you had managed to somehow make a fortune, you would still be considered inferior to the oh-so-prestigious “Old Wealth”. A read through The Great Gatsby is a perfect exemplar of this dichotomy.

At the turn of the century and the advent of progressive reform in the U.S, mixed up the social classes, at least in the U.S brought some reform to the existing “Meritocracy”. Through the century, it has gotten better, but it is in no way equal. Michael Young’s satirical novel ended in another spectacular revolt against the Meritocracy; according to him it would occur in 2033. Essentially, Young is saying that the only way to free the current society from it’s current meritocratic system is to revolt once again.

AgainsocietyYet revolt is not the only way. Society still retains the democratic system which can once again allow for a progressive revolution alike to the one in the 1920’s. One of the largest problems with society today is the “bubble” that successful people of the meritocratic system reside in. They, unlike others, are able to keep their family lineage within the “success bubble”, even though their merit may say otherwise. A successful meritocratic family, for example, is able to afford to move house to house, putting their children through the current best-rated school. They are able to afford the ridiculously high cost of University these days. In fact Universities may more readily accept them simply because they will be able to afford it, along with the higher chance that alumni will give generous donations, since family-connections will land them a high-end job from.

The average, everyday person, however, not apart of the “Meritocratic Bubble”, is not afforded this. Therefore, they are at a great disadvantage in comparison to those who are apart of this bubble.

Solutions are abound. One debated solution is to define success for yourself. Instead of looking at other peoples definition of success, creating a personal definition will lead to a more fulfilling lifestyle. Don’t define yourself by what’s on your business card or resume; personality and self-fulfillment goes deeper than a one-page paper of external achievements.

Others state that we need mass reform, specifically of the educational system, the financial institutions, and the political system.

What is your opinion? How else can we reform our society, to create more equal opportunity, and a more pure Meritocracy.

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Andrew Plaza

Nerdy Tech fanatic interested in the intricacies of life, technology, and high existence.

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