Wednesday, June 20, 2012

How Faith in Meritocracy Undermines Meritocracy

I spent some time this morning involved in another debate at Ethics Alarms, once again arguing that it might be wrong to tell people who are struggling to find employment that their problems can only be the result of their being stupid, or lazy, or just plain not knowing how to look for a job.  Yet precisely those kinds of accusations continue to fly freely in the commentary of people who have no idea what the conditions on the ground are like for young people today.  People like Jack Marshall have no qualms about casting aspersions on the character of bright, earnest, committed, hardworking people, because as far as the accusers are concerned, if you’d done things right you would have gotten what you wanted.

It’s not as though such people – generally middle-aged and middle class – start out with the conviction that their younger and poorer targets are good for nothing, and then construct the meritocratic myth as an explanation for why.  Quite the opposite; they believe so firmly in the perfection of the system through which kids acquire training and education and employment prospects that it only allows one explanation for most people’s failure.  That’s the very problem with their view.  If you are to convince them that an unemployed law school graduate is unemployed by no fault of his own, you must first compel them to abandon their entire way of perceiving American society.

People who are currently in their forties or fifties and have attained middle class status came up through a much different reality than what is faced by young adults in the twenty-first century.  So it is with every generation.  The trends, experiences, and rules of one can’t be expected to apply to the next.  That doesn’t stop anybody from judging the present as if they were interpreting the past.

Yet obviously there are some things about the circumstances surrounding today’s graduates that are wildly different from the situation that was faced by graduates twenty or thirty years ago.  For one thing, there’s a goddamn lot more of them.  For another, they’re carrying a staggeringly higher average debt load.  Obviously, the current global economic crisis is of issue, as well.  Add to that that between then and now, the overall structure of the economy has been transformed, with the death of manufacturing industries, the consolidation of corporate ownership into fewer and fewer hands, and so forth.

Whether the United States has ever possessed a true meritocracy is up for debate, but even if it has, amidst all those changes it can’t rationally be asserted that the same merits today gain the same outcomes that they would have a generation or two prior.  In fact, most people seem to acknowledge this.  There’s little doubt that the Bachelor’s degree has been devalued by its ubiquity, and it seems like this is common knowledge.  Yet that doesn’t stop the accusations of laziness and stupidity from being thrown at unemployed graduates either.

I’ve tended to think that such accusations are just insulting and oblivious to the reality faced by many people like myself today.  But having given the perspective of people like Jack Marshall more thought today, I think it quite possible that negative attitudes towards struggling graduates are much more than that.  They may actually be indicative of a significant part of the reason why all the nation’s unemployed lawyers face so much hardship in the modern job market.

It’s worth considering with what kind of people I and other bright, yet invisible job seekers are applying.  Who is in charge of corporate human resources today if not middle-aged, middle class individuals who came up through life in a time when college degrees were rare and valuable, and the world prosperous for people who held them?  I dare say that most of these people have perspectives like that of Jack Marshall.  I’m sure that most of them believe that today’s America is a perfect meritocracy, because that’s what it was when they were kids, and as far as their concerned that ‘s all that it ever was or ever could be.

That perspective can’t be undermined by anything, no matter how many over-educated applicants come slinking to their offices in pursuit of entry level jobs outside of their chosen fields.  Based on all the anecdotal evidence I’ve come across, certainly including depressingly much of my own, these people are almost universally turned away.  I had long supposed that the reasons for this are that employers expect such people to want too much money, not take an interest in the job, and leave as soon as something better comes along.

I still see it that way, but with new and potentially meaningful nuance.  Low-level employers are probably right when they assume that NYU grads, or engineers, or lawyers who apply with them aren’t pursuing what they want.  If American society is a meritocracy, then intelligent, talented, qualified individuals who pursue what they want get what they want.  Individuals who believe this and are in a position to hire an overqualified applicant won’t accept that the application is the result of them being genuinely short on options.  Instead, they will assume that something must be wrong.

I shudder to think how many people have been shut out from gainful employment because of the reasoning that says, “With this person’s background, either he’s too unmotivated to apply for a job in his field, or his despicable character prevents him from being a good employee anywhere.”  It’s not a malicious sentiment.  Quite the contrary, it’s perfectly altruistic; it emphasizes that if the person is good he will find his way to the better job that suits him, and need never waste his time on something that he doesn’t want to do, is overqualified for, and will not make enough money doing.

On some level, I’ve always recognized that about my situation.  I’ve gotten the sense that many of the people who slip my resume soundlessly into the trash imagine that I’ll be fine, that I didn’t need their job, that the right alternative will be just around the corner if I’m willing to look for it.  It simply isn’t the case.  There are times when bright men and women have to settle for less.  There are times when talents have to be misplaced just to get oneself out of an awful situation.  You can’t recognize that if you believe that America is, always has been, and always will be a pure meritocracy.  And yet you have to recognize it if you’re in a position to help people by hiring them into just such a situation.

Young people’s fates are held now by people who cannot recognize that which they must recognize in order to handle those fates properly.  In this way, faith in meritocracy undermines meritocracy.


Charles H. Green said...

Well said. And your comment over on the ethics blog is exquisitely put.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree. This is not my experience nor is it that of peers also in the recent graduate job market. I feel this is just assigning blame unfairly as well as coming to a very simplistic conclusion what is going on.
Grow up.