Discussion: This Woman Thinks We Should Get Over Meritocracy. Could She Be Right?

Discussion for article #235127

Any system that makes intangible traits (like being social) into a recipe for success will only help foster a larger number of resentful, bitter and angry people who see their lack of success as a victim of the same system. You don’t want a society filled with bitter and angry people. Then you get people like Mohammed Atta.


Indeed, what makes the phrase so loathsome is precisely the way it recasts an unfortunate reality—education and ability matter less than knowing the right people—as an opportunity. What should be understood as a worrisome diagnosis has instead turned into a piece of advice for young people, bestowed as if it were a gift.

I can see why the author is so turned off by the phrase. In all liklihood, he’s been raised his entire life to focus on his grades, his papers, his tests, his articles, his writing, his achievements and probably found excellent feedback to his personal work. Now that he’s in the real world, e.g. outside academia and still running on his own narrow production, he’s realized that he, he, he, he, he only gets him so far.

Personal meritocracy runs into another set of weeding, that of communal or group achievement. You can be the smartest individual in the world, but if you’re a failure/dislike at motivating and/or leading others, then why be surprised when your personal achievements hit their Peter Principal? Stop reading the superman comics and focus on group achievement.

In the end, if you’re just chasing money and status, that’s not meritocracy, that’s just sad.


What you know v. who you know:

Maybe a little off topic, but I’ve worked in HQ’s, Regional and Branch offices over the span of 30 years. Every time humans get together in groups they compete for status. That’s Soc Psych 101. They also form coalitions within the groups.

There is a clique or in-group in just about every one such entity. I’m not talking about managerial rank although each clique usually involves one or more manager. He or she may have been one of the founders of the office. It can be all men – old boys’ network – all women – all girls’ network or a combination. I’ve seen both. If it’s old boys, there’s an added dimension of sexism: Picture the clubhouse sign in the Our Gang comedies: “NO GIRLS”.

Members of the group get the best assignments (best territories if it’s a sales group), get to have lunch with the boss are are the last to get fired during staff cutbacks. They hire friends of the insiders. I myself have gotten two badly-needed jobs in the 1970’s because I had a friend on the inside.

Generally, if you’re not part of that clique and can’t crash it, you’re not going anywhere. If the clique has attributes of gender, race or ethnicity it can get ugly. I’ve seen cliques of men, women, Italians, Irish, blacks, WASPS. Yes, and women doing sexual favors for their bosses in some cases. I’ve seen couples brazenly carrying on affairs.

Social control over the outsiders involves gossip, social isolation, probationary status or firing. Rudolph doesn’t get to play in reindeer games. Complainers are treated to sour grapes.

Call this networking, nepotism, old-boy groups, or whatever term of art you like, it’s a major reality in the work world.

Chris Hayes’ observations here are right on the money.


Jordan Fraade. TPM:

The Names Not Numbers website features many testimonials, but the one I keep seeing is from Niall Ferguson, who praises the conference as being “like Davos, with community singing”—as if the main problem with the notorious Swiss summit for global elites is that Angela Merkel forgot to bring her guitar.

Instead of the main problem being, for instance, the presence of Niall Ferguson and other smug, usually wrong, oligarch idolaters who think they’re always right.


Why is it that children of the elite – whether academic elite, as in Hobsbawm’s case, or otherwise – always insist that they got where they are through hard work and dedication? That may have been a necessary condition for their success, but not a sufficient one. (Her claim to be the first professor of networking is also a bit rich.)

The term “meritocracy” was coined by Sir Michael Young, then a sociologist, in a 1958 satire about a social system in which positions are allocated on “merit”, but the elite get to define what is and is not meritorious. The elite become insufferably smug, and eventually sow the seeds for their own demise. The book ends with the political and social collapse of the “meritocracy.” Michael Young was about 60 years ahead of Hayes on this one.


Introverts can build groups, too. I’m a book lover, so much so that I attend signings, conventions, etc. I’m not an introvert, but many in my group of friends are, and even if they don’t think they are doing it, they network the hell out of each other and this has worked out for them, because it never hurts to meet heads of publishing houses and agents. Introverts can network just fine if the group is accepting and has things in common. I doubt any of them think this is what they are doing though, with the exception of

“It distills everything awful about our social and economic moment into one sentence.”

I have to admit that networking has gotten me most of my jobs. The most obvious was I once was laid off (branch office of 40+ went down to 3 after a huge project was cancelled) and a few days later I got a call from a small engineering firm that I had never heard of because a sales rep told them that I would be a good fit for them. I immediately interviewed and started work the next day. BTW, I had gotten the job at the larger frim because a previous coworker of mine had recommended me for the job.

Ugh. Generation X, Y, Z, you are so full of yourselves and your self-pity. Networking is not incompatible with advancing on merit. Abraham Lincoln was a “networker”— if he relied on merit alone he would have been writing deeds and wills and defending railroads in Springfield until 1890. If you are not lucky enough to have a job where your work is noticed without you showing it to anyone (I am not sure there is such a job), you got to go out there and make sure people see it. It does not hurt to be likable. Anyone who needs a book to learn this is living in la la land.


I like her apartment. It’s apocalypse-chic.

Hayes is actually familiar with Michael Young, and Young’s horror that the word he coined in satire became a standard that politicians invoke unironically. He’s pretty sharp himself, and wrote a pretty great book. (And has a pretty great MSNBC show, IMHO.) For any who might be interested, here’s an interview with Amy Goodman from when Twilight of the Elites was published:


Just like nature/nurture, the what/who you know is a false choice. Its always both.

A person’s genetics establish an expected (mean) level of talent, and his environment enhances or detracts from his natural ability. The question is, “How much”. Are people’s expected IQ’s between 95 and 105 and the enviroment has a variance of 40 points, or is the mean between 70 and 130 with a variance of 5 points?

We value what we’re good at. I learned this the hard way. I’m extremely analytical, but wasn’t good at networking. That’s brought me a lot of success, but has limited my effectiveness as well. It is not enough for a firm to produce: R&D, manufacturing, Distribution and Sales are all required for success. Some of those activities require the ability to influence others with the soft people skills. Some don’t.

Someone who’s highly analytical and driven will be very successful as a programmer or engineer; however, in the C-suite, they don’t do programming or engineering. They identify and motivate talent by communicating a coherent compelling strategy. They negotiate with suppliers and distributors. They attract clients, and they communicate with equity analysts on Wall Street.

Networking won’t get you one of these jobs. You have to be able to prove your telent; however, if you lack the basic skills to network, you’ll never have the people skills necessary to succeed in the C-suite.


The part about this that particularly gets to me is the way that even “objective” meritocracy has become a failure in a world with enough inequality. If you’re rich – oops, well off – you can buy your kids at the tutoring, coaching, test prep and so forth they could possibly need to objectively test out at the top of the heap. Even the stupid ones will be smart enough and well practiced enough to do well. And if you add networking to the mix – unless there’s some huge turnover you select for a bunch of formerly-marginalized types who have learned to act in a way that makes the folks already on top comfortable with them.

Sure, it opens up the elite, but it also cements it in place by making it something transmitted by culture as well as heredity (a little like the way that talented poor young men in the middle ages could find a patron and rise in the church even if they had no Name.) Ultimately what we need is more mobility and less stratification, rather than a promise for a select few outsiders to reach the higher strata.


It took me most of my adult life to find a company that is close to a meritocracy. The mortgage company that I work for hires the right people. To simplify, they are not looking for whiners and blamers. Whatever they are doing in the hiring process, it works. There is no sign of office politics. Minimal nepotism. I get along with close to 100% of my teammates. If you work hard then you get promoted. They train you constantly. If you wind up in a role that is a bad fit then you can work your way over to a more suitable position. I was referred into the company, and so were the majority of the staff. Thank heavens for networking, since I would have never thought to work for a mortgage company. They’re not all bankers. Who knew?


You are of course correct. I’d add that being particularly good at one can compensate at lack of skill in the other. Where the out-crowd gets the raw end of the stick is the whole ‘getting voted off the island’ thing.

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If you think you can change this deep rooted way of doing things you are wrong. She is correct and get real.

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Niall Ferguson could give Bill Kristol a run for his money on being wrong.


You’re lucky and I’m not being snarky. There is so much incompetence on a managerial level that groups like yours are relatively rare.

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British class system? maybe there in the UK but not here. Never. I can’t accept merit based on birth in the British style.

Reading this article, I feel the author’s visceral attachment to his idealized meritocratic system. And despite the conclusion, I don’t quite believe he’s given it up.

I agree that when you dig down far enough, there is no such thing as a completely meritocratic system. The author cites educational achievement for instance as a meritocratic means of evaluating people, but is it really? Given the lack of low income students at elite schools, or in higher education more generally, I’m skeptical. The SAT/ACT system is supposed to be meritocratic, but standardized testing in almost any country ends up reinforcing the existing social/economic hierarchy. And I think you’ll run into similar problems with other means of measuring ability. Besides, even people with awesome networks and great degrees often lose out to others. Luck, at the end of the day, trumps just about anything.

I agree that non-meritocratic factors, diversity probably being the most important, are worthy of striving for in and of themselves. This isn’t because meritocracy isn’t important, but rather because the world is too complex for our simplistic notions of it.


Reading this article is 15 minutes or so that I will never get back.