In Part 8 of Status Society Alain de Botton argues that the benefits of a meritocratic system have been extraordinary. People who for generations were held down in a caste like hierarchy have finally been allowed to fulfill themselves in whatever ways their talents allow. Race, class, gender and age have all stopped being obstacles to advancement. An element of justice has been introduced into the distribution of rewards. Alongside meritocratic educational reform has come efforts to promote equal opportunities in the workplace. We are repeatedly told that through effort and diligence we can make it to the top.
There is a pride in the way many people speak about how they got to the top, a pride that would have been impossible in the days before meritocracy when you only got places because of who your parents were. Earning good money and having an important job title say more positive things about you than they ever used to. Unfortunately in a meritocracy having no money or no impressive job title say many more negative things about you than they used to. There’s a darker side to meritocracy: if the successful merit their success it then logically follows that the unsuccessful merit their failure. In a meritocratic age an element of justice seems to enter into the distribution of success as well as failure. Financial failure becomes associated with a sense of shame that the unsuccessful of old were fortunately spared. Now the question of why, if you are in any way clever or talented, you are still unsuccessful, becomes a more difficult a question to answer. The rich come to seem as though they are deserving of what is going right for them. Watch the video to see what conclusion Alain de Botton comes to about those for whom meritocracy has not delivered the status they desired. He claims that we have ended up with a curious paradox that our wealthy, opportunity-filled societies have had the odd effect of raising our levels of status anxiety.
Posted by Shona Lockhart, 27th June 2012