Is meritocracy one of the greatest myths in America? As comedian George Carlin once said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
Sounds grim, right? But such attacks on the concept of meritocracy are actually healthy. They’re signs that America is finally reckoning with widening wealth inequality and stagnant wages. The future of work is a space where we can reinvent a concept that sounds good in theory—that employment rewards those with the best skills and work ethic—but which has actually become deeply tainted by barriers to access.
A truly meritocratic work system needs to have what venture investor Oliver Libby calls a “strong floor, no ceiling” economy. This is where baseline social support allows individuals and families to take appropriate risks and also seek higher personal and societal returns. In practice, a strong floor would include paid parental leave, strong K12 education for all incomes, and reasonably priced public college tuition. In an era of automation, it also means revamping our learning and job retraining systems, which today often prepare people for careers that are obsolete or under threat.
At the same time, Americans are shifting from the model of a linear career—an upward escalator ending in a gold watch and pension—to an episodic career. People change not only jobs but entire fields of work in rapid succession. In order for a meritocratic system to exist with episodic employment, there must be affordable, comprehensive health care and retirement savings options available to people between jobs or who are self-employed.
As long as America lacks a “strong floor,” someone will pay a price. Right now, those paying the highest price are lower-income and less-educated working women. Research shows that women lose 4% of earnings for every child they have, while men gain 6% in earnings when they have children. We therefore need to approach the future of work with an understanding of human life-cycles, which include child-rearing, disability, and illness.
What if America, like Germany, offered job security and paid parental leave for both mothers and fathers? We would live in a very different nation, with less social anxiety and quite likely less political strife. America’s viscerally charged politics are in large part a result of a scarcity mentality, where working-income people feel they are better off fighting people within their income and class brackets than collaborating to demand social protections that other nations make routine. A “strong floor” is also one key to rehabilitating the American Dream: the narrative that anyone in this country from any background can succeed.
Our current system protects existing wealth-holders at the expense of those who rely on earned income. According to one index, New York is the top-ranked city at attracting the world’s wealthy—but it’s also a city with hyper-segregated public schools, along both racial and wealth lines. The unequal education in New York’s school system is a microcosm of America as a whole, where some US high schools have robotics teams while others lack basic current textbooks. At the college level, when dividing the population into fourths by family income, students from the top income tier earned more than half of all college degrees, while students in the bottom tier earned just 10% of degrees. On an hourly basis, college-degree holders earn nearly twice as much as high-school graduates.
But is this a sign of the most talented future workers rising to the top? Or is it only functioning to support those who were already born on the right path? Taken from end-to-end, the pipeline from poor K12 schools to poor earnings as adults seems to be a function of structure rather than meritocracy.
So what would a truly meritocratic work pipeline look like?
First, it requires real access to the precursors of success to allow people from all backgrounds to compete for the highest-paying jobs and bring their talents to the workplace. This fails across racial lines as much as class: Even when wealthy people of color are set up to succeed, they are still prejudiced against compared to their white counterparts.
Second, as employment in America will always include vital lower-wage workers, we need to include those in the emotionally and physically taxing caregiving professions a new approach to supporting their success. For example, unlike all other developed nations, America still does not offer federally mandated paid maternity leave, and in a majority of states infant care costs more than in-state college tuition. These are not the precursors that allow for both the child of a home health-care provider and a Silicon Valley software developer to have a shot at success.
American meritocracy is under attack, and for good reason. Re-thinking how this nation both prepares and rewards people striving for success can rehabilitate not only the concept of meritocracy, but how we live as a society.