Exactly 50 years ago Michael Young published his famous dystopia "The Rise of the Meritocracy." His son Toby argues that we never got the meritocratic educational elite predicted by his father, instead we got the celebrity classby Toby Young / December 20, 2008 / Leave a comment
Fifty years ago, the sociologist Michael Young—my father—published a book that, in his own words, gave him a minor claim to immortality. A dystopian satire in the same vein as 1984, it was an attempt to sound a warning bell about various social and political trends by describing a future in which they had come to fruition. It wasn’t as successful as Orwell’s book, but it did enjoy some afterlife thanks to a word my father coined to describe the new ruling class that would hold sway in this nightmarish future. It was called The Rise of the Meritocracy.
People are often surprised when I tell them that my father invented the word “meritocracy”—they assume it must have been around for ever—and even more astonished to learn that he wasn’t a fan. How could anyone be against meritocracy? It seems incomprehensible today. The commitment to making Britain more meritocratic has become an ideological shibboleth that almost no one dissents from.
Michael disapproved of meritocracy because he saw it as a way of legitimising inequality. After all, if everyone starts out on a level playing field, then the resulting allocation of rewards—however unequal—seems fair. Those at the very pinnacle of our society might not inherit their privileged position, as their forebears had done, but its pyramid-like shape would be preserved. Indeed, once this hierarchical structure became legitimised, as it would in a meritocratic society, it was likely that power and wealth would become concentrated in even fewer hands.
Just how prescient was The Rise of the Meritocracy? Equality of opportunity has become every bit as entrenched as my father thought it would, but that hasn’t had a corresponding impact on the composition of Britain’s elites. Much of today’s ruling class is still drawn from a narrow band of schools and universities and while those institutions accept only the “brightest” applicants they have not had to compete with the rest of the population on a level playing field. They have not earned their place at the top on merit alone which, for the purposes of his book, my father defined as IQ + effort.
The Sutton Trust—which tirelessly compiles evidence to show that Britain is not a meritocracy—has calculated that the proportion of privately educated high court judges has barely changed in the past 18 years: 74 per cent in 1989 compared to 70 per cent in 2007. And according to…