Monday, 4 August 2014

So our 'meritocracy' is really just jobs for the boys .....and girls?

Really good episode of Thinking Allowed last week. Its a great programme, consistently thought provoking and always well worth listening to. What caught my attention was a discussion on 'networking' by the Middle Classes. I use a capital 'M' because I'm talking about proper middle class people, not just people who think they are middle class because they have a white collar job, and by 'proper' I mean professionals - doctors, lawyers etc. You can't just become middle class overnight by simply going to university and getting a half decent job, Middle class people tend to come from families that have been been Middle class for several generations and they usually have money, property and importantly for this discussion - connections.

In the programme Laurie Taylor discussed a paper called 'Staying Classy' with the author Jessica Abrahams based on research carried out on working class and Middle class students at university. What she found was that while Middle class graduating students were more than happy to use family connections to get on the job ladder, gain experience and further their careers, working class students were prevented by feeling of 'honour' i.e. they didn't feel it was the right thing to do. As you can imagine this put them at a disadvantage in a very difficult and competitive job market.

But its interesting to also think about how employers relate to all this. Given the choice between someone who had started out with a 'good' job - e.g. some sort of internship with a high powered company arranged through family connections - or someone who had acquired a less glamorous post through their own hard work and efforts - who would you choose?  Well I'm supposing many employers would choose the former rather than the latter candidate, and that's how the job market largely works.

I can imagine people thinking not to use connections is daft and if you don't bother you deserve what you get, but what about nepotism? Do we really want a society built on class privilege with the 'best jobs' being monopolised by the sons and daughters of the better off? What does this say about the kind of society we live in? So much for meritocracy. There's no merit in gaining advantage through who you know. 

Finally, its worth defining 'meritocracy' because most people misunderstand it. The word was coined by George Young in1958 to mean:
'merit is equated with intelligence-plus-effort, its possessors are identified at an early age and selected for appropriate intensive education, and there is an obsession with quantification, test-scoring, and qualifications.

Young was describing a meritocratic 'class' groomed for success. Meritocracy is now taken to mean something very different - success based on ability and talent. But perhaps it needs a new meaning in 21st century Coalition Britain - success based on who you know not what ability you have - or maybe we should just call it 'Nepotocracy'?

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