Many Britons believe that success is based on merit. But evidence shows that family background and economic circumstances play a key role in individuals’ opportunities to move up the social ladder. Underestimating the importance of these factors can reinforce existing inequalities.
Meritocracy – the idea that an individual’s success should be determined by a combination of talent and effort – is one of the most prevalent values of our time. First introduced by Michael Young in the 1950s, the word was originally meant as a critique of a system in which the elites define merit narrowly so as to protect their position at the top of society (Elliot Major and Machin, 2018). Today though, meritocracy has become more closely associated with ‘social mobility’ – the ability to move up or down the social ladder. Many people in the UK believe that the idea underpins modern society.
Figure 1 shows the results of a survey conducted in February 2021. It reveals that in the UK, hard work and ambition are perceived as the most important determinants of success, far ahead of family status (wealth, connections, well-educated parents) and demographic traits (such as race, gender and religion). Three-quarters of respondents believe that hard work is essential or very important for getting ahead in life. But evidence suggests that, in reality, the link between merit and success is tenuous.
Figure 1: Perception of the importance of different factors in success
Source: Policy Institute King’s College London.
Do we live in a meritocratic society?
The latest pre-pandemic report on social mobility in the UK shows that society is far from being meritocratic. Rather, the report indicates that external circumstances affect people’s outcomes as early as in the womb. Education is a crucial driver of social mobility: in a system where education inequality is prevalent from a child’s early years onwards, social mobility is likely to be limited.
Babies born into disadvantaged households are more likely to have low birth weight due to poorer maternal diets and higher rates of inadequate antenatal care. This is then associated with worse health outcomes later in life. By the age of five, inequalities are clear: in 2018, only 57% of children with access to free school meals reached the expected level of development compared with 74% of children not entitled to free school meals (Social Mobility Commission, 2019).
Much of this is linked to the home learning environment. Studies show that the way in which parents interact on a day-to-day basis with infants has strong implications for intellectual and cognitive development and verbal ability. For example, low-income children are less likely to be read to and less likely to go on educational outings (such as trips to the zoo, the library or the park).
A report from the Sutton Trust found that 45% of low-income children are read to daily at the age of three, compared with 65% and 78% of middle- and high-income children, respectively. This has important implications, with children who are read to daily at the age of three performing significantly better in vocabulary test scores than those who are not.
This gap continues to widen into adulthood, reinforced by disparities in schooling. Children from the 5% of households with the highest income in the UK represent nearly half of private school cohorts. These have more funds and twice the amount of staff per student, implying smaller classes and more pastoral care.
This is then associated with higher academic success rates: nearly half of students from independent schools got an A or A* in their A-levels in 2019, against a national average of one in four. This gap has widened during the pandemic, with independent schools seeing the highest grade inflation this year.
Figure 2: percentage gaining A or A* by school type
Source: Proud, 2021
Naturally, this has implications for higher education, with 26% of pupils entitled to free school meals entering higher education compared with 43% of other pupils in 2019. This is key, considering that individuals with a degree earn an extra £210,000 on average across a lifetime.
Teenagers from low-income households are also significantly less likely to get into a university in the Russell Group. This further reduces their opportunity to move up the social ladder, with graduates from the top universities earning 40% more than other graduates (Social Mobility Commission, 2019).
The impact of socio-economic factors on employment and income is particularly important for women, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Almost two-thirds of white people from professional backgrounds end up in professional occupations, compared with 28% and 37% of people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds, respectively.
People with disabilities who come from a professional background are twice as likely to reach the higher paid jobs as disabled individuals from a working-class background (Social Mobility Commission, 2021). Nearly half of trans men and 35% of trans women reported not having a job in the last 12 months (Government Equalities Office, 2019).
This accumulation of evidence highlights the extent to which an individual’s socio-economic background influences their employment and pay. In 2019, the UK government concluded that parental income alone explains 40% of people’s earnings. Economist Branko Milanovic argues that once you add values like citizenship, gender, race and ethnicity, this number rises above 80%.
In other words, hard work and effort account for less than a fifth of how much somebody earns. This is likely to worsen as a result of Covid-19, with research suggesting that unequal learning and labour market losses as a result of the crisis will further hamper social mobility and increase scepticism about an individual’s ability to climb the socio-economic ladder (Elliot Major et al, 2021)
Does belief in a meritocratic society harm us?
Comparing this evidence with results from the survey shown in Figure 1 suggests that people underestimate the role of socio-economic factors in income in the UK. This is alarming, as there is growing evidence that a belief in meritocracy reinforces pre-existing inequalities and biases.
Several studies have highlighted the existence of a ‘paradox of meritocracy’. This refers to the fact that managers in businesses that place a strong emphasis on meritocracy as an organisational value tend to favour male employees over equally qualified women significantly more than businesses that don’t explicitly focus on meritocracy when making bonus decisions.
Part of this can be explained by the fact that people are more likely to act in a prejudiced way once they have explicitly presented themselves as a non-prejudiced individual: ‘an organizational culture that prides itself on meritocracy may encourage bias by convincing managers that they themselves are unbiased, which in turn may discourage them from closely examining their own behaviours for signs of prejudice’ (Castilla and Benard, 2010).
Another study found that widespread belief in meritocracy leads people to blame those who are worse off for their relative disadvantage. For example, Britons are more likely to think that people who lost their job due to coronavirus did so because of personal failure rather than bad luck.
More alarmingly, a widespread belief in meritocracy can cause members of disadvantaged backgrounds to believe that they are less deserving of success, and to underestimate the extent to which they face discrimination (McCoy and Major, 2007).
In other words, the danger with meritocracy is that it can end up justifying inequality by implying that those who are well off deserve it because they worked harder. Overestimating merit draws attention away from the role of non-meritocratic forces in perpetuating inequalities.
Eliminating the structural barriers that continue to hamper social mobility in the UK must remain at the forefront of policy-makers’ agenda if there is any hope of attaining a more equitable society.
Where can I find out more?
- Unequal Britain: Attitudes to inequalities after Covid-19: A survey of people’s perceptions of meritocracy and inequalities more generally.
- State of the Nation 2018-2019: Social Mobility in Great Britain: A report by the Social Mobility Commission in the UK
- State of the Nation 2021: Social Mobility and the pandemic: The most recent report by the Social Mobility Commission.
- The Paradox of Meritocracy in Organizations: A study of the reproduction of biases in environments that promote meritocracy as a key organisational value.
- Priming meritocracy and the psychological justification of inequality: A study of the effects of meritocracy on low-income groups.
- Social mobility: and its Enemies: this book by Lee Eliot Major and Steven Machin explores the effects of decreasing social mobility and whether education helps or hinders life chances.
Who are experts on this question?
- Lee Elliot Major
- Jo Blanden
- Lindsey Macmillan
- Alita Nandi
- Stephen Machin