‘If you’re born into the working-class, you tend to get stuck there, even if you do have the “merit” to escape.’ This is the premise of James Bloodworth’s debut book The Myth of Meritocracy. Thomas Piketty’s cultural touchstone, Capital in the Twenty-First Century highlighted how wealth grows more quickly than the economy as a whole, and Bloodworth’s book focuses on the implications this has for social mobility.
In my interview with Bloodworth, when talk of those from privileged backgrounds accumulating wealth more quickly then those who provide labour comes to the forefront of our discussion my eyes illuminate with interest. It’s a well-known phenomenon, widely summed up as ‘the rich get richer, the poor get poorer’. Bloodworth, former editor of Left Foot Forward and writer for the Independent does not use this phrase, but his new book focuses on society’s imbalance in regards to social mobility and inherited economic privilege.
While the title, The Myth of Meritocracy, may not carry the titillation of a novel like, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, the plight of the over-scheduled, over-tested, stressed out student has recently become the subject of much hand-wringing and several good education policy recommendations. Bloodworth agrees that if the youth are to escape the educational pressure cooker, we need to understand how their background and the pervasive myth of the meritocracy traps them in it.
Meritocracy, in layman’s terms, is the idea that power should be vested in individuals almost exclusively based on ability or talent, and that those who strive for what they want will get it. Unfortunately, as Bloodworth explains, the “gap between the rich and the poor makes it difficult to always get the career you aspire to.” He mentions that those who are highly intelligent but born into poorer homes are statistically more likely to be put into “badly run schools, not have anywhere to do their homework in their own home, not receive the same encouragement and push from their parents as perhaps those from richer backgrounds do.” Bloodworth declared that awareness of this reality as being “thwarted by British society”, whereby the government still cling onto this concept of meritocracy, which is, metaphorically, 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.”
“A disadvantaged child will nearly always 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.”
Economic opportunity and upward mobility now seem ephemeral in face of increasing inequality in high-income countries. “As I looked more at the idea of social mobility and meritocracy, I realized that you could make society perfectly socially mobile if all the best jobs were just taken up by the most intelligent people. But this cannot happen unless the rich are a little poorer and the poor are a little richer.”
While to an outsider our class system is baffling in its rigidity, to most insiders it is largely immovable. The British attitude to social mobility has become, for many people, fatalistic. In Bloodworth’s Independent article, Meritocracy is a Myth, comparative rankings of social mobility in other countries are brought to the forefront of discussion; he discovers that the Scandinavian countries offer greater opportunity than most others. Social mobility in a society is usually directly connected with the equality of its citizens and in places such as Norway and Denmark, greater economic equality makes for increased mobility. Bloodworth began his book with the statement that life is a “lottery” and “if you are lucky enough to be born into a family that is well-off, naturally, you will most likely receive better opportunities and a better quality of life.”
Building a more egalitarian society is something Bloodworth feels the government drags by its hairs in order to convince our society that development for equality is happening. However, it is hard to hang on to such claims when politicians use offshore funds to avoid paying honest tax percentages. Due to the ignorance of meritocracy, Bloodworth thinks “we should build a society where even the people who want to do less glamorous jobs could do well also.”
Bloodworth is clearly passionate about the intricacies of social landscapes. For example, he describes his home life in order to explain why he meditates strongly on this matter: “I was from a lower to middle class family and I left school initially at 16 because I had some issues at home”. He acknowledges that there are many people who are or have been in the same situation a himself. However, Bloodworth turned it around: “I moved in with my Grandmother, this was a whole different kind of life for me, I ended up going back to school at 19 and my Grandmother was encouraging and was able to give me the money to pay for my education as a mature student”. “If it hadn’t been for for this relative support I wouldn’t have gone to college, university or got my Masters”, “However there are loads of people in the world who don’t have that kind of support from a relative and I think that is profoundly unfair.”
Figures cited in his article highlight Bloodworth’s desire that class representation revert to levels similar to those seen 1979. Statistics show that 40 per cent of Labour MPs at this time had done some form of manual or clerical work before they entered parliament; in 2010 this figure had dropped to just 9 per cent. It’s figures such as these that triggers Bloodworth to declare that “parliament is rapidly becoming the talking shop of the middle classes.”
With reference to the NUS disaffiliation motion, Bloodworth believes there currently exists a culture of “posturing and striking of a radical pose rather doing the small things that matter – getting out there and having a closer look at the lives of the living.” In contrast, and in regards to Labour, he believes “there exists more willingness to engage with the ideas presented in my book – more willingness to see the relationship between inequality and social mobility.”
“Parliament is rapidly becoming the talking shop of the middle classes.”
When swerving back to matters of education, the government’s recent plan to force all schools to become academies has come under increasing attack after research suggests that council-maintained schools outperform academies. When asking Bloodworth about this, he declares: “this is set to further stifle the notion of turning Britain into a meritocracy” as he doesn’t understand “why you need to turn good schools that are already performing well and change that model.” With the new educational policy and with recent findings showing that wealthier children are on average one year ahead of poorer children, the future of our educational system, Bloodworth discerns “is not looking up.”
Despite the well-intentioned rhetoric of Ed Miliband, Bloodworth believes we are not ‘one-nation’, and the first step in creating a genuine meritocracy would be to understand that “the interests of the banker are not the same as those of the nurse or the refuse collector.”
When you’re poor, your world is small. Sometimes this is a happy and convenient arrangement – your nan can watch the kids while you do the afternoon shift, for instance, and you’re surrounded by people who love you and make you laugh. But sometimes it is like a whirlpool threatening to drag you under, because no matter how far you get, it feels as though something is pulling you back – whether it’s cashflow, or caring responsibilities, or a lack of job opportunities. With this in mind, Bloodworth passionately concludes with his overarching idea for his book, which was released on 19 May: “it is impossible to create a meritocracy without dealing with the inequalities around you.”
The Myth of Meritocracy was released on May 19 and is available to order from Wordery http://tinyurl.com/j6pmw2p