The Myth of Meritocracy

The Clandestine’s Social Mobility and Class Officer Emily O’Sullivan is a Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics graduate with an interest in poetry, Russians, and instigating political debates in a variety of South London pubs.

[Featured image: Ex-PM David Cameron (top, second from left) and current PM Boris Johnson (bottom, third from left) in a Bullingdon Club photograph, 1987]

In a 2013 interview, Boris Johnson considered the likelihood of him being appointed Prime Minister. He concluded that he ‘had as much chance of becoming Prime Minister as being decapitated by a Frisbee’ or better still, that it was more probable that he should be ‘reincarnated as an olive, or Elvis Presley.’

On 24th July 2019, however, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became the PM, and his lifelong dream was finally realised. Despite the fact that he was, as Frankie Boyle noted, promoted as ‘sweet and cuddly, when in fact he’s more like Oswald Mosley’s soul trapped in a Furby,’ he claimed 66% of the vote in a victory that almost everybody saw coming.

Many years earlier, as a 12-year-old boy, a young Boris Johnson would cement the image of himself as a ruler, as he painted a self-portrait in the likeness of a Grecian demi-god (this is, unfortunately, not satire). As his sister recalls, he would also reaffirm his modesty by telling others that he wanted to be ‘World King’ when he grew up.

Whilst the dream of being a high-ranking overlord would provoke, at best, a snigger should it be suggested by an individual of ‘normal’ social ranking, it’s not too far-fetched for those churned out of Eton and the bizarre Bullingdon Club. In fact, Johnson would have known this as he joked about shape-shifting into Elvis Presley.

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And whilst we all like to believe in social mobility – the transition from one class or social position to another – and a meritocracy, wherein we will secure employment based upon our hard work and determination (rather than who our parents know and the doors that they can subsequently open for us), we may be falling for a cock and bull story.

Could a young person from a working-class background dream of ruling the country, and attain the position with relative ease? In short, it’s unlikely. Dr. Sam Friedman, who researches social mobility at LSE, found that upper-middle class individuals are six times as likely to land the elite roles that they’re aiming for than their working-class counterparts.

And it’s not for lack of trying, either. In fact, when he studied those who went to Russell Group universities, he found that those from privileged backgrounds who achieved a 2:2 were more likely to go into top occupations than those working-class students who achieved first-class degrees at the very same institutions.

The 10% of working-class people who do manage to break through into elite occupations earn 16% less, on average, than those who come from more privileged backgrounds. But why are so many talented young working-class people, with exceptional achievements from top universities, struggling so much to climb the social ladder?

Quite clearly, the hiring process by many companies isn’t based upon academic successes. A word that constantly rears its ugly head in the BBC show How to Break into the Elite is ‘polished’, and whilst its real definition is never really established, it pretty much means that working-class graduates rarely have the ‘posh’ edge required to make it in these professions.

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Accent is one way of judging how ‘polished’ somebody is, and unfortunately, is still a means by which intelligence is gauged. There are certain accents that businesses in the city will avoid like the plague, and one recruiter says that if you’ve got strong Essex tones – whether you’re working-class or not – well, good luck to you. You can’t have an accent and a brain, you know.

However, one of the most important markers of being ‘polished’ appears to be understanding the social rules and codes of the middle- and upper-classes. This is the main cause of alienation for working-class job applicants: an imposter syndrome that is massively accentuated by a confusion about how you’re supposed to act. This can seem to come naturally to those of a higher social status.

And this is, some suggest, rooted in an increased sense of confidence. If an individual has been surrounded by professionals from a young age, and understands the social codes that they expect, then they’re unlikely to have a meltdown whilst sat in an interview room with the big dogs of business. Few working-class people have such experience to draw from.

As Dr. Robert de Vries found, being listened to and having your views respected is what breeds middle- and upper-class confidence. In many predominantly working-class schools, for example, the reaction to individual viewpoints is a little more difficult to predict. As Darren McGarvey states, intelligence is something that you generally ‘learn to conceal’ over time.

As a young working-class boy, he remembers that he ‘would only drop in a reference to politics or current affairs’ if there ‘weren’t any boys around. For some reason, it always felt natural to alter the way I spoke when conversing with teachers.’ This lack of confidence due to an inability to speak openly about one’s views – though multifaceted – could be one of the major barriers to social mobility.

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After all, many have noted that white working-class boys ‘are the most under-represented group in higher education,’ with half of universities also having fewer than 5% of their student population made up of white working-class individuals. This isn’t to say that race isn’t linked to a potentially stagnant social status, but rather, that class presents many complications in itself.

Diversity is so often defined by groups of people that we can easily see, such as people of colour, women, and trans people. And whilst including these individuals is an important part of diversifying the workforce in top companies, the topic of class is rarely discussed; possibly because it is so difficult to define, but – more obviously – because you can be a woman, or a person of colour, and still be the ‘polished’ middle-class employee.

And one should consider the following questions: can a working-class graduate learn to be ‘polished’, and more to the point, should they? Should they be forced to conform to social codes that are rooted in old-school ‘toffishness’ (as Boris Johnson calls it) if they wish to succeed, and should ideas of meritocracy be based upon working-class people going through a metamorphosis into, well… somebody else?

Such a suggestion would, no doubt, imply that there is something inherently wrong – and unprofessional – about being from a less privileged background. That working-class people do not belong in certain professions, simply because of a variation in mannerisms and the way that they speak. And that they should, ultimately, strive to come across as middle-class.

This is problematic, just as it would be a little dubious to suggest that a woman in business should take on all of the qualities of a man if she wants to prosper. Social mobility should be about working-class people showing up as they are, and being recruited for jobs that they are qualified enough to do, all whilst being able to talk in that much-feared regional accent. After all, why shouldn’t they?


Featured image credit: Gillman & Soame.

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