Outrage at nepotism and other disgraceful forms of elite advantage-taking implicitly valorizes meritocratic ideals. Yet meritocracy itself is the bigger problem, and it is crippling the American dream. Meritocracy has created a competition that, even when everyone plays by the rules, only the rich can win.If he wants to concede that the products of the Ivies and the rest of the Status Hierarchy have performed poorly, fine. If he wants to suggest that administrators at other colleges, and Colleges of Law, recognize that they are in the same business as the Ivies, and should act accordingly, fine. If he wants to suggest that personnel directors of blue-chip companies, and wanna-be blue chip companies, cast their recruiting net more widely, fine.
But what, exactly, have the rich won? Even meritocracy’s beneficiaries now suffer on account of its demands. It ensnares the rich just as surely as it excludes the rest, as those who manage to claw their way to the top must work with crushing intensity, ruthlessly exploiting their expensive education in order to extract a return.
No one should weep for the wealthy. But the harms that meritocracy imposes on them are both real and important. Diagnosing how meritocracy hurts elites kindles hope for a cure. We are accustomed to thinking that reducing inequality requires burdening the rich. But because meritocratic inequality does not in fact serve anyone well, escaping meritocracy’s trap would benefit virtually everyone.
In a world of scarce resources, though, there will always be ways for the people who aspire to do better to outwork everyone else. The fundamental problem he tackles is that "getting into Yale" isn't the same thing as "outworking everyone else."
ELITES FIRST CONFRONT meritocratic pressures in early childhood. Parents—sometimes reluctantly, but feeling that they have no alternative—sign their children up for an education dominated not by experiments and play but by the accumulation of the training and skills, or human capital, needed to be admitted to an elite college and, eventually, to secure an elite job. Rich parents in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco now commonly apply to 10 kindergartens, running a gantlet of essays, appraisals, and interviews—all designed to evaluate 4-year-olds. Applying to elite middle and high schools repeats the ordeal. Where aristocratic children once reveled in their privilege, meritocratic children now calculate their future—they plan and they scheme, through rituals of stage-managed self-presentation, in familiar rhythms of ambition, hope, and worry.I wish people would re-learn the story of the Sword of Damocles. Those aristocratic children of days gone by had to develop the martial skills (for the men) and the diplomatic skills (for the women) as in those days the idea of settling differences at the negotiating table and marrying for love were still emergent. It might have been understood that the prince or princess, or lesser nobility, would receive the best preparation the tax-collector could extract, but there might be the convent or internal exile for the dullard. Yes, Harvard Prep Day Care is crazy, and yes, let's consider that there might be other ways for future talent to be groomed. But let's not pretend that turning a hereditary aristocracy into a credentialed meritocracy is a mis-step.
These students nevertheless have good reason to push themselves as they do. Elite universities that just a few decades ago accepted 30 percent of their applicants now accept less than 10 percent. The shift at certain institutions has been even more dramatic: The University of Chicago admitted 71 percent of its applicants as recently as 1995. In 2019 it admitted less than 6 percent.Is the competition to get into those elite universities so intense in part because the state flagships and the land-grants and the mid-majors have abdicated their responsibility? Is it really the case that the next generation of Masters of the Universe really requires high-status, stressed-out parents who are outsourcing the child care to nannies?
The contest intensifies when meritocrats enter the workplace, where elite opportunity is exceeded only by the competitive effort required to grasp it. A person whose wealth and status depend on her human capital simply cannot afford to consult her own interests or passions in choosing her job. Instead, she must approach work as an opportunity to extract value from her human capital, especially if she wants an income sufficient to buy her children the type of schooling that secured her own eliteness. She must devote herself to a narrowly restricted class of high-paying jobs, concentrated in finance, management, law, and medicine. Whereas aristocrats once considered themselves a leisure class, meritocrats work with unprecedented intensity.
The way out, though, may be emergent.
The rich now dominate society not idly but effortfully. The familiar arguments that once defeated aristocratic inequality do not apply to an economic system based on rewarding effort and skill. The relentless work of the hundred-hour-a-week banker inoculates her against charges of unearned advantage. Better, then, to convince the rich that all their work isn’t actually paying off.Inasmuch as we are all underemployed relative to our great-grandparents, whether those great-grandparents were dirt farmers, robber barons, riverboat gamblers, or the Duke of Braunschweig, in the scheme of things those higher stress levels among upscale yuppie spawn is likely to be self-correcting.
They may need less convincing than you might think. As the meritocracy trap closes in around elites, the rich themselves are turning against the prevailing system. Plaintive calls for work/life balance ring ever louder. Roughly two-thirds of elite workers say that they would decline a promotion if the new job demanded yet more of their energy.