Meritocracy is a myth

A disadvantaged child will nearly always and everywhere become a disadvantaged adult


What do you want to be when you grow up? I remember a careers advisor asking me just that question shortly before my sixteenth birthday. Like most of my peers I had very little idea as to what I wanted to do with my life when the seemingly endless horizon of school came to an end. Drink beer, smoke cigarettes and chase girls was about the sum of it.

Looking back, though, the question was a strange one. We insist on asking children what they want to do with their lives when most of the time it’s set in stone when they pull on their first school uniform. If they are born poor they will almost certainly stay poor; if their parents have money then it’s likely that they will too. The more unequal a society is the truer this statement becomes. 

Yes we insist on telling children that they can be ‘whatever they want to be’, knowing full well that crushing disappointment lies further in their future. Every nation relies to some extent on fairy tales. In Britain we cling to the idea that you can be or do anything in life so long as you put your mind to it. In the process we hand our politicians the one thing they can use to justify the obscene privileges at the top and the revolting squalor at the bottom: the indomitable myth of meritocracy.

Meritocracy is what’s politely called a dead duck. A child from a ‘modest’ background can only go from rags to riches in the sense that a human being can take off if they flap their arms around wildly enough. A disadvantaged child will nearly always and everywhere become a disadvantaged adult, and if you ignore the right-wing rhetoric and look at the data you might be a little less keen on hearing the 'M' word in future.

The children of wealthier parents are more likely to go to the best schools (houses in desirable catchment areas cost on average 42 per cent more), eat the best food, have access to ‘high culture’ and have a quiet place to do homework when they get home from school. As a result, poor but bright children get overtaken by their less intelligent classmates from wealthier backgrounds in the very first years of schooling, according to a 2007 study. 

As children become teenagers these inequalities are entrenched further. Around 10 per cent of young people at the bottom rung of the social ladder go to university compared with over 80 per cent of those from professional or managerial backgrounds. A student from a private school is 55 times more likely to go to Oxford or Cambridge University than a state school student on free school meals. And as universities minister David Willetts likes to point out, graduates will earn around £100,000 more over a lifetime than non-graduates.

Thomas Piketty’s ground-breaking book Capital in the 21st Century looks at how wealth concentrates when the returns on capital are higher than economic growth. Or in plain English, how it’s easier for a person who already has lots of money to make more of it. But it isn’t only wealth that concentrates; opportunity does too. Or as Picketty’s predecessor Karl Marx put it, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they make it…under circumstances…given and transmitted from the past”.

Take a look at political life in Britain today and the truth of that statement becomes self-evident. When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 around 40 per cent of Labour MPs had done some form of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament. By 2010 that figure had plummeted to just 9 per cent. The shape of the labour market undoubtedly accounts for some of the change, but the extent to which parliament is rapidly becoming the talking shop of the middle classes is evident in other ways too. An astonishing 91 per cent of the 2010 intake of MPs were university graduates and 35 per cent were privately-educated. This is a rise on previous elections and, in the case of the latter, compares to just 7 per cent of the school age population as a whole.

If nothing else, the fact that a tweed-suited former stockbroker can pose as just an ordinary bloke when contrasted with other politicians should set the alarm bells ringing. The ossification of politics is made worse by a media which increasingly resembles the establishment talking to itself.

The unpalatable truth that no politician will dare acknowledge is this: meritocracy can only exist if the rich have a little less and the poor a little more. Countless studies show that social mobility improves in more equal societies. Norway has the greatest level of social mobility, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Finland. Britain and the US are the most unequal western societies on earth in terms of income distribution and, surprise surprise, have much lower rates of social mobility than their more equal Scandinavian counterparts.

Despite the well-intentioned rhetoric of Ed Miliband, we are not ‘one nation’, and the first step in creating a genuine meritocracy would be an admission that the interests of the banker are not the same as those of the nurse or the refuse collector. While huge inequalities exist there can be no serious talk of social mobility or meritocracy, and careers advisors up and down the country will have to keep on lying to our children.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, Graduate, SQL, VBA)

£45000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Analyst (Financial Services, ...

Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Perl, Bash, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Application Support Engineer (C++, .NET, VB, Per...

C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB6, WinForms)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: C# .NET Software Developer (Client-Side, SQL, VB...

C# Developer (Genetic Algorithms, .NET 4.5, TDD, SQL, AI)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Jihadist militants leading away captured Iraqi soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq, in June  

Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Robert Fisk
India's philosopher, environmental activist, author and eco feminist Vandana Shiva arrives to give a press conference focused on genetically modified seeds on October 10, 2012  

Meet Vandana Shiva: The deserving heir to Mahatma Ghandi's legacy

Peter Popham
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

eBay's enduring appeal

The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
7 best quadcopters and drones

Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home