The current paper analyzes the pros and cons of meritocracy trend in relation to the 21st century labor market. It outlines the concept of meritocracy, including its positive and negative connotations. The paper also argues that there are different angles in assessing advantages and disadvantages of the high-end experts versus low-end workers in the context of globalized world.
In the middle of the 20th century, thanks to a very popular anti-utopian novel by British sociologist Michael Young The Rise of Meritocracy, the mentioned term has acquired a negative connotation. The book was written in the form of historical investigation, allegedly performed by some analyst in 2034 in the UK. By this time, the government, under the leadership of the Labor Party, has dismantled the “old caste system” (in other words, the old aristocracy sample) and created a meritocratic one. The new system selects talented boys and girls, testing their IQs and providing them with the best training, after which they become the economic and political elite. Democracy becomes a formality. The gap between “worthy” and “unworthy” is growing, and, as a result, the revolution sweeps away the smug elite. Half a century later, Young wrote bitterly that his book was misunderstood, and meritocratic dystopia was nearly embraced as a guide to action. However, it was not that a satirical novel about meritocracy found itself misunderstood, and that the term itself began to acquire, but it was a more positive connotation. Social thinkers began to view a meritocracy in the light of its positive features. In the 21st century, meritocracy was largely regarded as something positive. It was associated with honest structure of society, as opposed to aristocracy (including the new), but not to democracy. Meritocracy became known as the social system, in which the best jobs in business, science, and politics are occupied by the most talented and hard-working people, enjoying equal opportunities and competition.
In his book Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy, Chris Hayes brought out three things that are usually taken for granted in American society. First, the idea of meritocracy, as a working mechanism for a better future, comes from the Founding Fathers. Hayes quoted Thomas Jefferson on a natural aristocracy among men, based on their work and talent as the best form of government. Second, every self-respecting company wants to look meritocratic and declares this in its promotional materials, including the Web-pages and employment applications. The companies avoid appearing overly “aristocratic” for the reason that they do not wish to be perceived as supporters of “egalitarianism” among their employees. Third, the idea of equal capacity and meritocracy (in the modern sense of the term) is a consensus in the United States. According to Hayes, meritocracy is a rare example of harmony in US’ highly polarized politics in recent years. It, literally, permeates all of the debates, but is never their subject, since belief in it is too widespread (34).
The complexity of the world explains why it is natural for people to be willing to see the most educated and competent people, occupying the best jobs. One gets the impression that meritocracy is a merely natural response to the processes of globalization and specialization. However, in reality, things are much more complicated. The legitimacy of experts and professionals was one of the first victims of the growing complexity of the world. While science and technology continue to play a prominent role in people’s lives, “consensus of experts” has disappeared, as well as the links to science as an authoritative source. The current debate on climate change is a textbook example of discussions in which both sides have their own scientists, bringing scientific evidence to justify the two opposite points of view. It turned out that social costs of meritocracy are not that small. A meritocratic society is characterized by glaring income inequality. Its citizens are losing a sense of political community, democracy becomes cheating, and promising social mobility is replaced by the elites, standing on guard of their interests. They are not likely to let others in their narrow circle. Remuneration of people, according to their abilities and education levels, mean that few get the most, but many receive almost nothing.
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Rooting meritocratic principle means that people have become richer, but inequality is sharper than some 30-40 years ago. In 2011, 20% of the US population owned 84% of the total national wealth (Hayes 32). This situation is not unique to the United States. A recognized US reporter Thomas Friedman in his book titled The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century assessed the challenges and opportunities associated with the constitution of globalization era. Globalization reduced inequalities between States. At the same time, it almost universally exacerbated the rise in inequality within countries. Moreover, “in Globalization 3.0, individuals have to think globally to thrive, or at least survive” (Friedman 239). This growth is accompanied by a decline in social mobility.
The data gathered by Hayes showed that poor children who are better studying in school than the rich rarely graduate from college. Even if they do, their incomes are still lower than those of rich children who had low grades. In short, spending on education is really paying off, but the latter is a privilege rather than a social elevator. Friedman pointed out the broader angle of changes, trying to articulate the benefits and losses that the American society could potentially get from the “flattening” of the world in terms of the unprecedented rise of the middle class.
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Americans now have to compete against young individuals from the other countries. In the global world, specifically local jobs cease to exist. They become just the jobs, available for everyone who is smarter, more productive, or cheaper, regardless of the place of residence. This means that the US workers have to become more proficient in their technical skills and develop the new levels of mental flexibility, self-motivation, and psychological mobility. Today, workers have to find the way to fit into global supply chains.