The Myth of American Meritocracy

Updated: Oct 19, 2021

By Dave DiVerniero

American has branded itself “The Land of Opportunity” so ubiquitously that many Americans do not question the premise. Yet the promise implicit in the popular slogan, that the US is a place where regardless of your standing or background if you work hard you will find success, is not supported by evidence. Derrick Bell described this best in his work, Ethical Ambition: Living a Life of Meaning and Worth, “We live in a system that espouses merit, equality, and a level playing field, but exalts those with wealth, power, and celebrity, however gained.”

The reality is that success in America is not a meritocracy- the level of wealth you will most likely earn is best predicted not by your work ethic or intelligence but by the level of wealth you were born into.

Undoubtedly, there are children of meager beginnings who grow up to markedly improve their economic standing. American Meritocracy evangelists love to discuss these cases even though they are outliers, comforting anecdotes not replicable by all, or even most, hardworking, talented children. “To succeed in America, it’s better to be born rich than smart,” concludes Anthony Carnevale, lead author of a study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce. “People with talent often don’t succeed. What we found in this study is that people with talent that come from disadvantaged households don’t do as well as people with very little talent from advantaged households.”

The study tracked students through school and into the workforce, confirming research demonstrating that high performing students from lower socioeconomic households were less likely to go to college or earn a high wage than low performing students from higher socioeconomic households. As David Wessel, the Director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal & Monetary Policy, quipped, "Winning the birth lottery matters more than ever."

Among the more sinister factors contributing to this subversion of meritocracy is the persistent racial and ethnic discrimination present in education and career development. 65 years after the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education SCOTUS decision, many students of color still experience an educational system that is separate and unequal. Analysis of data for school finance cases shows that “on every tangible measure—from qualified teachers to curriculum offerings—schools serving greater numbers of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving mostly white students.” Discrimination in the workforce can be complex and difficult to untangle from other, related, factors but perhaps the most egregious display of workplace discrimination is shown by the famous University of Chicago study which sent out thousands of fictitious resumes with 'white-sounding' and 'black-sounding' names, showing a 50% improved callback rate for the presumedly white candidates.

Education is a key component of economic mobility. It should come as no surprise that the United States, a country with a significant financial barrier to post-secondary education, should have problems with meritocracy. In an almost direct parallel with career and financial success, post-secondary education is less of an option for high-performing students from low-income households than for low-performing students from high-income households.

While the wealthy nearly always have fundamental advantages of opportunity over the poor and middle class, the level of inequity in America is by no means universal. In a ranking of countries by social mobility, the US comes in 27th, after the bulk of developed nations. Contrary to capitalist dogma, countries that have the highest social mobility are those that invested heavily in education and a strong social safety net.

Your chance of achieving the American Dream is nearly twice as high in Canada relative to the United States.” found economist Raj Chetty, Harvard professor and contributor to The Equality of Opportunity Project.

The pervasiveness of the myth of meritocracy is such that it is widely believed and spread despite the fact that the average American personally comes into contact with numerous contradictions of this myth on a regular basis. Many, if not most, people have worked for someone of stunning incompetence who has nevertheless managed to rise to an executive or managerial role in their career. It's well established that the skills and tasks required for exceptional job performance are different, sometimes dramatically different, than those needed for career advancement. Job seekers will find themselves judged by many nebulous metrics of dubious merit such as 'culture fit'. They will be advised, universally, about how essential networking is and how it's much more about who you know than what you know- or, although this part will go unsaid, how good you are or ever were at your job.

The non-meritocratic system may be the obvious enemy; the illusion that success is entirely or primarily determined by a person's talent and hard work is harmful as well. The myth of meritocracy is highly attractive to groups committed to economic inequality because it excuses the immorality of inequitable wealth distribution ('if poor people want a better lot in life they can just work harder') and gains support for policies that heavily favor the wealthy from the middle and lower class who have been conditioned to believe becoming wealthy is an achievable goal for themselves. Most obviously, the myth of meritocracy prevents action to start building the beginnings of an actual, functioning, meritocratic system.

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