Counting on Class: The Continuing Appeal of Meritocracy

Tim Strangleman Professor, University of Kent

Neither faith in nor critiques of the idea of meritocracy is new. Michael Young’s famous 1958 book The Rise of Meritocracy argued that class privilege and advantage were likely to be amplified as financial and cultural capital passed across generations in families. Each new generation would benefit from existing structural advantage created by their parents and even grandparents. They might be talented individuals, hardworking and driven to succeed, but they would owe their achievements in part to a myriad of inherited class advantages. Young intended the title of his book as a satire, but for many, it seems to promote the ideal of egalitarian opportunity.

A recent rash of books critically revisit the ideas in Young’s now six-decade-old book. In The Class Ceiling: Why it ays to be Privileged, Sam Friendman and Daniel Laurison provide a wonderfully accessible account of contemporary class analysis in the UK, examining the complex ways in which class influences life chances. The authors leaven the numbers with fascinating vignettes from the field showing how successful middle-class professionals are sometimes aware of their own class privilege. As one put it, “I was lucky to have a following wind”. The book does not offer a crude demonization of privilege. Instead, the study gets to the heart of how talent and hard work don’t sufficiently explain how good jobs get allocated. Often times, as The Class Ceiling shows, it’s the lucky breaks that already privileged people enjoy that allow them to achieve yet more success.

Take ‘Mark’ for example, a successful TV executive in his late thirties. Mark relates to Friedman and Laurison his own ‘following wind’. The son of successful educated professionals, he was privately educated before gaining a place at Oxford. While he was at Oxford, Mark’s parents paid for him to go on a holiday to New York to do research for his undergraduate dissertation. He stayed in Manhattan for free in an apartment owned by a contact his father had met on the side-lines of a rugby match.  This same contact then provided Mark with an introduction to the television industry. The upside of the anecdote is that Mark is full aware of his privilege and luck.

The Class Ceiling is peppered with similar tales of advantage and their mirror image, such as the pairing of Nathan and Jim. Nathan’s CV is littered with prestigious roles in TV and film.  He attributes his success to “just working incredibly hard” and “making good decisions” like turning down jobs he didn’t believe in.  As he explains, “No job is worth sacrificing yourself for”. Jim, by contrast, has decided to leave the acting profession after ‘sacrificing’ himself and his career by taking the kind of parts Nathan can afford to avoid. Jim’s working-class origins still constrain him in his forties.  He struggled so hard to get into the acting profession, but the typecast jobs he has to take ultimately end up damaging his career and lead to offers drying up altogether. Class both constrains and enables after all.

The old formula so loved of politicians and defenders of the status quo that success can be reduced to Talent + Hard Work = Success is well and truly nailed by The Class Ceiling and its intimate stories of success and failure, which show how the safety net allows some to take chances and enjoy opportunities.  What emerges is a profound story of wasted, unrealised talent for those from working-class backgrounds.

This theme is picked up in another important recent book, The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits. For Markovits, meritocracy isn’t working for either the losers or the winners. For middle-class families, the stress involved in ‘making it’, even for those with privilege, involves constantly monitoring children’s progress, pushing them to excel in a bewildering array of extracurricular activities so that they can compete for the jobs or opportunities in the future. The Meritocracy Trap highlights the effect this has on both parents and their off-spring, creating profound and enduring anxiety and mental health issues. I wrote about my own experience of using middle class cultural and economic capital in terms of my own kids in a previous blog. The solution for Markovits involves radically improving education for all social classes to take away incentives to leverage class privilege in schools and colleges.

In The Rise of Meritocracy, Young described precisely the ‘following wind’ that Friendman and Laurison talk about in The Class Ceiling seven decades later. Sheer talent and hard work wasn’t then, and isn’t now, going to allow those further down the social scale the chances they need to really succeed. One of my colleagues who researches drugs policy has this neat formulation that politicians ‘need to follow the available evidence, not what people would prefer to be true’.  This is also true for commentators who defend the common sense view of meritocracy that talent and hard work will out. In study after study, social scientists repeatedly show that class and other forms of stratification get in the way of merit. Privilege, or the lack of it, shapes individuals’ merit, and it can undermine someone with great talent and commitment, or give someone an extra push. So what do we do in the face of the enduring attraction of meritocracy? It helps to keep repeating the inconvenient truth to anyone that will listen. Books like The Class Ceiling and The Meritocracy Trap help enormously by making complex arguments accessible to a wider public, providing the numbers but also giving names and faces to what those the numbers represent.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Center for Working-Class Studies

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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