When Michael Young wrote The Rise of the Meritocracy, it was acceptable in most political circles to adopt educational policies, which sponsored the futures of the ‘brightest and the best’. To have a ‘scientific’ measure, the IQ test, to predict children’s future potential strengthened the case. The core of his satire is the idea of innate ability, and his formula I + e = m (intelligence plus effort = merit) gently mocks the bogus psychology and popular scientism of his time. Perhaps due to later recognition of the failings of IQ testing, subsequent debate was more concerned with IQ than effort, although the last decade has seen a shift towards using personal character traits to explain individual life outcomes . The ‘e’ for effort in Young’s formula now might be better written as ‘c’, where c stands for character (and the ‘I’ for IQ replaced by a ‘Q’ for educational qualifications).
A concern with individual moral characteristics is not new. From the late 19th century, a veritable industry in self-help books telling people how to succeed in life has promulgated this ideology of individual ability. For example Atkinson’s Thought Force in Business proclaimed in 1901 ‘Anything is yours if you only want it hard enough. Just think of that. Anything! Try it. Try it in earnest and you will succeed. It is the operation of a mighty law’ .
Whereas European philosophical interpretations of equality emphasise social justice, liberty and citizenship, in the United States the focus has been on self-determination and individual qualities – to be allowed to ‘get ahead of the pack’. The consequence is that ‘winners’ see themselves as worthier than ‘losers’, closer to the emerging rigid hierarchy in Young’s meritocracy. Thus Theresa May’s announcement on the steps of Downing Street that ‘we will do everything we can to help anybody, whatever your background, to go as far as your talents will take you’ has pejorative undertones. What happens to those with less ‘talent’ or ‘character’? Do ‘losers’ merit our concern?
As anxieties about lacking social mobility increased in the 21st century, politicians and practitioners expressed commonly-held prejudices associating young people’s alleged idleness and criminality with single parenting and intergenerational welfare dependence. ‘Troubled families’ remain a focus – often to the neglect of other young people who fall under the radar of policy makers and practitioners . What we need, they say, is more character (or resilience or grit).
It is not surprising that the idea, that young people from less privileged backgrounds fail to achieve their full potential because they lack character, has taken hold on the right and centre-left of British politics . The public schools have been working hard, and successfully, on this issue since the 19th Century. Confidence building for our future leaders is what schools like Eton, Westminster and Harrow excel at – but of course their pupils rarely arrive at school with little social capital.
One consequence has been interventions by government, business and civil society to help young people from less advantaged backgrounds to correct their ‘low aspirations’, ‘realise their potential’, and achieve upward social mobility. It is useful to ask, however, if these have been based on unrealistic or even mistaken principles.
Where, for example, is the evidence that young people ‘lack aspirations’? As Kintrea et al. argue, ‘…there is a lack of clarity about whether aspirations are fundamentally too low, especially among people from disadvantaged backgrounds, or are in fact rather high, but cannot be realised because of the various barriers erected by inequality’ . Their research shows that by age fifteen, 82% of young people aspire ‘in an ideal world’ to obtain professional or managerial jobs, but only 66% believe that this is a realistic ambition. In fact, it is only possible for 42% of young people to succeed in this way, because only 42% of jobs are in the professions and management. Only 4% of young people consider ‘sales, plant and machinery operatives and elementary occupations’ as a realistic aspiration – but the reality is that 25% of them will end up in these jobs which make up a quarter of all employment.
Practical interventions, generally designed by well-intentioned, highly educated, confident and capable people, who expect a lot from themselves and, who have been successful in life, focus too much on producing ‘transformational’ change. Such programmes can inadvertently exclude or repel potential participants, or worse, expect too much and set them up to fail. While middle-class young people with social capital are more likely to be at the ‘threshold’ to achieve what is required, many less advantaged young people may be some distance from the desired objectives.
In one recent scheme to enhance young people’s digital skills employability I was evaluating, the initial draft of the promotional material, asked potential participants: ‘are you passionate about creating change and delivering global connectivity?’; ‘could you revolutionise the world through the power of digital technology?’; and ‘are you ready to change the world and disrupt normality?’ Such terminology may put some capable young people off from getting involved in the programme because these ambitions are self-evidently too grand (or too silly) within the scope of the project. But more importantly, framing programme ambitions may intimidate or be incomprehensible to young people with more limited stocks of social capital.
Persuading policy makers and practitioners to adopt ‘proximate aspirations’ is not easy. When Mark Scoular, from the Metropolitan Police, and I were advisors on O2’s ‘Think Big’ corporate social responsibility youth programme, we had to work very hard to convince funders and practitioners to accept the benefits of achieving what Mark insightfully called ‘worthy but dull’ outcomes.
In the Think Big programme young people had to devise socially beneficial projects for their communities and were given some money and support to help them achieve this. At first there was too much emphasis by the project team on looking for what they called ‘awesome’ outcomes – which could only be delivered by the most capable. Amongst projects selected for PR purposes, we were gratified that one of them was for something as ‘dull’ as a homework club for poor Black children in Wandsworth who had no computer, no space or peace and quiet at home to do their school work. This project really was worthy because it made an enormous difference.
What may look like pitifully ‘small steps’ forward in achievement terms from one point of view can be regarded as a ‘giant leap’ or ‘triumph’ from another – depending upon the starting point of the young person. Among middle-class families, achieving five good GCSEs is but one early step on a long educational journey; a challenging step but not insurmountable for the majority of their children. Similarly, getting a top grade GCSE mathematics is a good measure of an individual’s performance no matter what their background, showing they can perform mathematical calculations at a specified level of competence.
But judgements about achievement may be different depending upon the young person’s starting point. If they have little parental support, nowhere to do homework, an unsupportive peer group, attend a poor school where teachers have low expectations of their students, and so on; then achieving a top GCSE is a greater achievement compared with their middle class counterparts (which was backed up by good schools, supportive parents, extra tuition, positive peer group pressures, etc.).
The middle classes have, for generations, been successful at maintaining class stability for their children. They do everything they can to avoid social mobility (Payne), ensuring their children have sufficient stocks of social capital to navigate a successful journey into good quality, well paid secure jobs with a decent future.
From the perspective of people from less advantaged backgrounds, social mobility involves more than educational performance. Too often it also involves the assimilation of middle-class values. Such transformations are not possible or desirable for everyone. It is easy to lose sight of the fact that many people might, if circumstances were right, want to remain in the communities where they were born because they value the importance of people, culture and place. Upward social mobility often requires that such links are fractured through geographical mobility and unpalatable social and cultural re-adjustment.
Being a factory machinist, a care assistant, a retail worker, or a hairdresser can all provide a chance to live a good life – if society insists that employment conditions and pay are decent and people are respected for the contribution they make through their efforts. Currently there is a risk that those young people, who cannot or will not assimilate middle-class values and proceed along the conventional middle-class tramlines, are viewed as failures. Consequently, this is used to justify the rigidity of a hierarchical meritocracy, which further denigrates the social value and the economic contribution these young people make as adults in ‘ordinary’ jobs.
 Lawler, S. (2018) ‘Social Mobility Talk: class-making in neo-liberal times’, in S. Lawler and G. Payne (eds) Social Mobility for the 21st Century: Everyone a Winner? Abingdon: Routledge.
 Bendix, R. (1956) Work and Authority in Industry, Berkeley, California: University of California Press., p261.
 Chapman T., Rich, S., Gray, T. and Braidford, P. (2018) Young People’s Life Transitions in County Durham, Durham: Institute for Local Governance.
 Shildrick, T. (2018) Poverty Propaganda: Exploring the Myths, Bristol: Policy Press.
 Kintrea, K., St Clair, R. and Houston, M. (2011) The Influence of Parents, Places and Poverty on Educational Attitudes and Aspirations, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, p6.
Tony Chapman is a Professorial Fellow at St. Chad’s College, University of Durham. His extensive work with Third Sector organisations, and local and national government, on young people connects with issues surrounding gender, home and neighbourhood.
Image: Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash