A Treatise on Meritocracy

On paper, I could be a poster child for the class mobility promised under a truly meritocratic society. I was born to freshly immigrated parents with minimal financial resources and no ability to speak English. For most of my childhood, we were essentially in continuous poverty – bouncing between cities where my parents could find work (usually needing multiple low-wage jobs to stay afloat) and residing in relatives’ basements and cramped in-law units up until I was in middle school. Then, mostly thanks to my mother’s foresight, I was set on a path to pursue “the American Dream” and radically change our family’s fortunes.

Ready, set, compete!

My parents used more than a decade of diligent savings to put together a down payment for a house at the far western edge of San Francisco, near a public high school named Lowell – nationally recognized for its academic excellence and notoriously difficult to gain admission into. But a whole childhood of being lectured about the importance of education, strict study habits, and near-annual battles to stay in honors/accelerated/“gifted” programs had prepared me well. I got into Lowell – and that hyper-competitive environment drove me to work even harder and perform well enough to get into UC Berkeley’s College of Engineering, which led to my first Master’s degree and ultimately a string of jobs at top tech firms.

How could a kid in poverty (whose family couldn’t even afford toys) eventually grow to hold senior-level product management positions and out-earn his parents by an order of magnitude? Certainly hard work (first by my parents, then me) was part of the formula, combined with systems and organizations (schools, companies, etc.) that proportionately rewarded that effort. This was the essence of meritocracy in action, and I will always be eternally grateful that I was able to benefit so immensely from it.

However, over the years I’ve come to learn that meritocracy has several insidious downsides that aren’t often discussed – especially in Western societies where the values of self-determination and personal responsibility tend to preclude any questioning of the concept. Here I’d like to detail three ways that meritocracy falls short in modern society, even as an ideal that might seem reasonable to pursue at first glance.

Meritocracy promotes overwork & burnout

For those fortunate enough to “win” the meritocracy game and reach the upper echelons of society, they often find the rewards are actually kind of terrible. First is the problem of rising expectations – as one climbs the corporate ladder, becomes an expert in their field, or grows their influence, practically every aspect of modern society assumes that person should take on progressively greater scope, ownership, and/or responsibilities. This naturally leads to the need for more working hours that people generally accept with little complaint, under the assumption that it’s a fair price to pay for meritocratic progress towards that next raise or promotion. Add in a dash of #hustle culture and there should be little surprise why the length of the average work week has been on the rise – reaching extremes of 60+ hours per week for 25% of U.S. salaried workers. Adept managers can learn to delegate some responsibilities to their reports, but they also have the added burden of actually managing people – a time-consuming job often added on top of standard duties.

Additionally, as a person rises through the ranks, the penalties for shortcomings or failures increase accordingly. This leads to ever-escalating stakes for every action or decision they make, reinforcing the need to work even harder to always get things right. Not only does this add undue stress to work – it also exacerbates organizational politics as defensiveness and territorialism scales with seniority. (This also partially explains why senior leadership often requires such excessive levels of analysis, justification, and communication overhead when doing anything.)

All this may not be that bad for those who truly love what they do, as the intrinsic reward of fulfilling their purpose can somewhat make up for the heightened expectations and overwork. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people are working simply for money or status – and these rewards are simply not enough and/or too shallow to counteract the devasting effects of burnout in the long-run. My theory is that much of “unfulfillment” at work is due to this mismatch between meritocratic-driven overwork and the ultimately hollow standard rewards of raises and promotions.

Personally, I started catching on to the problem of overwork by observing my skip-level (manager’s manager) at one of my first tech jobs. In my few conversations with him, I noticed he was always physically exhausted and seemingly plagued by hundreds of unspoken issues hanging over his head. When I observed him in meetings, I could tell he was constantly walking a fine line between his reports and upper management – needing to be extremely careful with his words to keep everyone appeased simultaneously. And he never had time for his hobbies (or even a vacation really), as his position was so central that projects would come to a halt without his presence. It was through these observations that I determined I would probably never want to be a people manager, at the very least. This sentiment is now apparently widespread among older millennials.

Meritocracy reinforces narcissism

The egalitarian notion that there is an open field of opportunities available for anyone with the gumption to pursue them sounds great at first – but there is also an inherent dark side. Namely, a parallel belief that people deserve exactly what they get, so their worth as a human being is reflected in their achievements: educational attainment/prestige, jobs, wealth, status, etc. Hence, this invites people to become more judgmental of others based on these factors. The broadly accepted assumption is that those with the most wealth must be incredible people, while those who can’t hold a decent-paying job are simply not up to snuff. For those who are able to attain this form of “success”, it’s hard not to flaunt it – they are conditioned to believe their success is due to their hard work and/or natural talents, after all.

This is clearly evident in how most people in Western societies introduce themselves to each other. Questions such as “what do you do?” and “where did you go to school?” are prodding for data points that can signify how well one is playing the game of meritocracy. And you can bet that someone who went to an Ivy League school or has a commanding job title will not be shy about mentioning these. Once these details are divulged, the interrogator (usually subconsciously) makes an evaluation about how valuable this person is – and this colors the rest of their future interactions. I’ve been playing around with this phenomenon myself lately – when I introduce myself as an urban planning student, I get very different reactions than when I introduce myself as a former product manager in tech.

This is ultimately adding up to a society filled with narcissistic snobs. Our worth as individuals becomes tied to our chase for meritocratic accumulation of wealth and status. Alain de Botton writes that “material accumulation has become the gateway to the respect and love we all crave” – which is a truly dystopian vision of humanity that is relentlessly becoming true. Having a simple, ordinary life is no longer enough in a world that idolizes those who expound the virtues of meritocracy.

The spread of narcissism is not healthy for many reasons, foremost being a reduction in long-term happiness (defined by the formula “reality – expectations”) and a loss of empathy. In fact, numerous studies at UC Berkeley on the “money-empathy gap” have shown that people who feel wealthier begin to:

  • Associate their success to their own talents/skill
  • Feel deserving of their fortune, even if it came just by chance
  • Exhibit greed and demonstrate monopolistic behavior
  • Act more aggressively and less empathetically towards others

Meritocracy is actually a myth

At this point, staunch defenders of meritocracy might wish to dismiss the side effects of overwork and narcissism and refocus on the core concept that a system that rewards talent and hard work is worth pursuing. And to be fair, I would actually agree that the ideal of meritocracy is noble and fair. However, we need to acknowledge that the way meritocracy is integrated into most societies today is hardly fair – especially when it interacts with Western-style capitalism and humanity’s intrinsic tendency to discriminate based on race, gender, etc.

First, it should be clear that money warps the results of meritocracy. Those who have obtained wealth (whether through meritocratic means or simply by inheritance) are able to use that money to buy opportunities to advance in this game. The classic examples are the SAT and college admissions – the families with the most resources are able to procure the SAT prep courses, private schools/tutoring, and extracurricular activities needed to propel their children to the top of the pack and guarantee admission to their preferred universities. In such a hyper-competitive and cutthroat college admissions environment, it’s not surprising that parents would utilize their resources in this way. (It’s not even that surprising that some would outright bribe college admissions officers.) Wealth begets wealth, much like power begets power. In this way, our supposedly meritocratic systems are actually complicit in the acceleration of wealth inequality – ironically stifling the class mobility they were supposed to promote.

Then we layer on discrimination, which is not merely a historical artifact. Sure, the United States does not redline neighborhoods anymore – but the loss of generations of wealth through the blocking of homeownership still hurts those communities today. It is not just a coincidence that the poorest neighborhoods have the worst performing schools – it is directly related to the lack of property tax revenue available to fund those schools. In the workplace, there’s plenty of reporting of discrimination when it comes to who gets promoted into senior management. And of course the gender wage gap is still very real across the globe, which won’t close until society figures out a way for men and women to bear roughly equivalent child-rearing responsibilities. All of these examples (and far more affecting all kinds of historically disadvantaged groups) illustrate that pure merit is clearly not the only factor that defines one’s ability to gain rewards in society. It’s time that we accepted this reality (see: “everyone’s a little bit racist”) and stop believing that a perfect meritocratic society is even possible.

In Practice

I must admit that I have played the meritocracy game for most of my life, and even now to some extent. I paid for SAT prep courses, got into a top-tier university that I strongly associate with (Go Bears!), worked 60+ hours per week in high-prestige jobs, and openly admit to being the occasional narcissist about it all. At the same time, I know what burnout feels like, I am intimately familiar with the “bamboo ceiling” and building capacity for empathy is something I’m working on. I am grateful to have experienced the full range of meritocracy’s effects, and only now am I able to reflect upon it all.

I haven’t been able to free myself entirely from the allure/grip of meritocracy, however. My approach to graduate school for urban planning is the most recent illustrative example. Last year, I obtained admission to three universities: The University of Melbourne, New York University, and San Jose State University. Because of COVID-19 travel restrictions, I decided to start at SJSU with the intention of transferring to one of the more “elite” universities to finish my degree. However, as I have talked to more urban planners and realized that the difference between graduate programs is actually quite immaterial, I’ve slowly warmed to the idea of just getting my degree from SJSU and moving on. Even though I have accepted this, part of me still feels the draw of a higher-ranked institution – thinking that a more prestigious degree would open more doors for me in the future. This is despite the fact that my current career goals would be easily achieved without the need to strain myself. Such is the draw strength of meritocracy in the society we live in.

All this being said, I don’t want to come off as discouraging ambition in general. One genuine benefit of meritocracy is its ability to inspire people to continuously improve themselves, and that’s not worth losing. However, it’s important to recognize what happens when we take this drive too far, or when we delude ourselves into thinking the world operates perfectly with this framework. In this sense, meritocracy is somewhat like capitalism – the right amount can incentivize valuable behavior and spur massive benefits to humanity, but it becomes disastrous when unchecked or unregulated.

Here’s to hoping society can establish a healthier, moderated approach to meritocracy – one that still inspires great work and forward progress, but without the adverse psychological downsides.

Further Reading

Daniel Markovits’ book “The Meritocracy Trap” is a major source of inspiration for this post. You can get a general overview from these articles/interviews with the author:

3 thoughts on “A Treatise on Meritocracy

  1. Simon, solid article critiquing meritocracy. These ideas are fresh in my mind after reading George Packer’s critiques of the Four Americas (“https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2021/07/george-packer-four-americas/619012/”), one of which is the one we live in – Smart America that highly values meritocracy.

    One critique I do have of this (and several videos arguments) is that “meritocracy is a myth”. Under the standard definition (“basis of talent, effort, and achievement,”), it is only a myth in areas that strictly don’t use merit (e.g. nobility granting ruling ability or as you allude to, bribing your way to a post where your ability to bribe doesn’t make you better at your post). Meritocracy does not say anything about whether anyone’s prior opportunities or even talents (by definition, intrinsic to the person) are “fair” — all that is required is that the assessment system is maximizing its prediction of performance. (min variance of estimates)

    From that point of view, the discussion in one of the videos about alternatives to NYC’s admissions systems for selective schools is not talking about meritocracy from the position of the school. All the school (if it is to be a meritocratic judging institution) cares is that the admissions system correctly predicts student performance — the video never touches on that key fact as its making arguments about social equity, not meritocracy.

    So I’d counter the US is largely meritocratic. What doesn’t exist is equal opportunities for all people — the “myth” is not that meritocracy isn’t real, the myth is that individual action is all that matters to succeed. I’d argue this distinction is key and raises other questions — while things are better if we could provide equal “environments” for all people (assuming that’s done by upleveling, not downleveling), you do increase the load on inborn (“genetic”) ability. A world like Gattaca, even if you throw out the designer baby aspect, is meritocratic, but also disturbing from a social equity perspective.

    As you seem to allude to (and Packer states explicitly), there is no viable alternative to meritocracy that can produce as much social utility. But it is important we don’t make negative moral judgements about those that don’t succeed — -nor make ourselves hyper-focused to succeed at the detriment to health.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response, Aaron!

      That’s a fantastic article from The Atlantic (as usual) – I can definitely see myself and practically all of my network as part of “Smart America”, which reinforces the assertion that these groups exist mostly in silos. Perhaps all this handwringing about meritocracy is a uniquely “Smart America” issue. Love this bit:

      “…a system intended to expand equality has become an enforcer of inequality. Americans are now meritocrats by birth. We know this, but because it violates our fundamental beliefs, we go to a lot of trouble not to know it.”

      Totally agree that there is no great alternative to meritocracy, though – pure collectivism or pure aristocracy would indeed be worse than what we have today. You’re also right that the “myth” is about equal access to opportunity, though I (and those videos) consider this baked into the modern meritocracy narrative/package. If meritocracy were really only based on “natural talents”, Packer points out that is essentially the dystopian vision from when Michael Young first coined the term. 😅

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