Book review: The Myth of Meritocracy

Oct 4, 2018 | Diversity

ISE chief executive, Stephen Isherwood reviews The Myth of Meritocracy by James Bloodworth.

If the state educates 91% of kids in the UK, why were only 57% of graduates hired this year state schooled (PDF) *? As recruiters we generally follow the principal that IQ plus ability plus effort equals success. Either this formula doesn’t work in practice or talent is found disproportionately in private schools.

Leaders in politics, law, the media, most professions in fact, do not reflect the UK’s population demographics. It’s not as if employers are ignoring the issue. This year’s ISE Annual Student Recruitment Survey showed that social mobility is now a high or medium diversity priority for 76% of employers – five years ago it was less than 20%. We know the figures but why does what you were born into have such a bearing on your life outcomes?

Before reading The Myth of Meritocracy I was unaware of the difference between individual mobility, where a person progresses up the ladder, and structural mobility, where societal shifts occur. Bloodworth explains how economic shifts in the 1950s and 60s grew the middle classes. In the post-war years, an increase in white-collar jobs across the UK economy lifted a significant proportion of the population into higher socio-economic groups. Now the opposite could be true. Technology is hollowing out middle management jobs and creating, what some commentators call, the hourglass career model: lots of low skilled and high skilled jobs with artificial intelligence systems replacing many middle tier jobs.

If the number of middle tier jobs is static or declining, then we are talking about fostering individual mobility: which means that for every person who ascends another must descend. 

Maybe that’s why the leader of the HMC (an association for independent schools) criticised employers who use contextual data in recruitment. When The Telegraph reported on the ISE’s internship survey (PDF), the article stoked fears that middle-class job applicants would be penalised. No surprises that the comments section was full of rants about the threat of creeping communism.

Bloodworth articulates succinctly how the UK’s social structures, education system and political priorities reinforce a society that has one of the lowest social mobility rates in the world. He argues convincingly that politicians must think radically to effect meaningful change. A national basic income is one solution he proposes.

Understanding the deeper issues that cause social immobility will help us tackle the problem better. Blind screening and data analysis alone will not fix the problem. We need to do more than adjust recruitment systems to make a meaningful change to graduate intakes. You may or may not agree with the political answers this book suggests, but you will understand how deeply imbedded within the structure of our society these problems are.

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