The Meritocracy Is Making Us Miserable

Merit is a sham,” Daniel Markovits writes in the first sentence of his new book, The Meritocracy Trap. But for Markovits, our system of elite education and glossy jobs is not fraudulent in the way many of us think. The main problem isn’t that Wall Street, Silicon Valley, or the Ivy League are greedy, blinkered, or inept. We don’t need to cleanse our meritocracy of undeserving people or upgrade our meritocrats; we need to dismantle the whole system. Even when it works, Markovits argues, meritocracy is a primary driver of inequality in America.

Markovits, of course, is a meritocrat himself—doing stints at Yale College, London School of Economics, Harvard, and Yale Law, where he teaches today. Nonetheless, he says, these structures are making everyone miserable. The middle and working classes are blocked from opportunity, and the elites are locked into a life grinding intensity and ruthless self-exploitation. But in this misery, there’s a way out. He suggests that if workers of all types could see how meritocratic structures are causing such disaffection, then maybe we could work together to unwind the system. Meritocracy, Markovits writes, has become “a caste order that breeds rancor and division.” But emancipation from it “would heal a society that meritocracy has made oppressive and mistrustful.”

Markovits sat down in The Nation newsroom to discuss his new book. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

—Christopher Shay 

Christopher Shay: What is the “meritocratic trap” that you’re describing in the book?

Daniel Markovits: The idea is that the rise of a super-skilled, super-trained elite causes two things to happen: First, the elite invests enormously in training its children. This means that people who aren’t born to rich parents don’t have the same educational opportunities. That’s why you see things like the Ivy Plus colleges with more students from the top 1 percent than the entire bottom half. That’s one part of it: the concentration of education and training in a narrower and narrower elite of children.

And then there’s a labor market part, which is the remaking of the labor market in a way that distinctively favors the skills that elaborate training gets you. The labor market that, at mid-century, was dominated by a large mass of mid-skilled, middle-class jobs is today dominated by a small number of glossy jobs by super elite workers who can then expropriate the returns to labor and immiserate a large mass of others. It’s a trap, because it excludes everybody outside of the elite from opportunity. And for the elite, it’s a trap because there’s an alienating character to being trained and then worked in a ruthless competition your whole life.

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