Most of us have stopped believing in the myth of the meritocracy. The myth promises that the ablest or most intelligent or hardest working get ahead of the rest. Most everyone realizes this is not true, yet we continue to act as if it is. We tell our children to stay in school so they can move up, not down, the class ladder. A specific version of that myth is the idea that “anyone can be President” in the United States regardless of accidents of birth like color of skin, geography, or gender. Children are often reminded that Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin, as if anyone born in a trailer in Appalachia or an East Los Angeles barrio or public housing in Detroit can follow his route. Such stories imply that those who don’t move up are to blame for failing to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
The insidious myth of meritocracy belies increasingly insane levels of inequality in the US that prevent even younger generations born into the middle class from achieving “the American Dream,” if by that we mean stable housing, secure employment, and the opportunity to do as well or better than one’s parents. Yet we still believe that if you go to the right schools and do well, you can actually pull ahead, no matter where you were born or what you look like. You probably know someone born into poverty who is doing relatively well today – maybe even yourself. But doing better isn’t necessarily actual class advancement. A slew of studies in recent years document the persistence of inequities that keep working-class people from achieving economic and social parity with their peers, even when similarly educated or occupied.
One massive study in the UK found that even when those from working-class backgrounds land prestigious jobs, they earn, on average, 16% less than colleagues from privileged backgrounds. Sociologists Daniel Laurison and Sam Friedman coined the term the class ceiling to describe this phenomenon. Drawing on 175 interviews with individuals from four relatively elite occupations – television, accountancy, architecture, and acting – they uncovered a complex system of barriers to class advancement. Working-class people lack access to the social networks that give some employees an edge over others. They may not be familiar with “the rules of the game” and other cultural expectations. And of course, they also face outright discrimination based on accents and other instances of overt classism. Yet some occupations are less classist than others, which provides some hope that we could, if we had the will, reduce or eliminate many of these barriers.
Political scientist Nic Carnes has identified a similar class gap in political representation. In The Cash Ceiling,he argues that many from working-class backgrounds would be qualified to run for office. Indeed, there are more working-class Americans than middle-class Americans, and there are no educational or occupational requirements for becoming a politician. Furthermore, working-class candidates do just as well as other candidates — when they run. The problem, Carnes finds, is that they can’t run because of practical burdens like taking time off from work, but they are also passed over by political and civic leaders who prefer middle-class candidates. Here again, social networks matter.
My own research demonstrated similar obstacles for low-income, first-generation, working-class college students. Even when they get into selective colleges and do well academically, they fare less well than their more privileged peers. I argued that colleges often amplify pre-existing advantages, rather than ameliorate them. Among many other factors, who you know matters in getting first (and subsequent) jobs, and working-class students simply do not have the same access to social networks as many of their peers.
Recently, the American Sociological Association’s Taskforce on First Generation and Working Class Persons in Sociology concluded a five year internal study of class discrimination and class impacts within the discipline. The Taskforce’s Survey of ASA members showed significant classed outcomes influenced by compounding effects along the career path. Sociologists from working-class backgrounds are less likely to hold long-term tenure track positions in top programs, in part because they didn’t attend “top tier” graduate programs, which in turn reflects that they didn’t go to elite undergraduate schools. And class absolutely affects that initial choice. All along the way, class works in both obvious and subtle ways to limit advancement for persons of working-class origin.
Along with my fellow researchers José Muñoz and Elizabeth M. Lee, I have been interviewing graduate students and faculty in sociology who either grew up poor or working-class or were the first in their families to go to college. The interviews reveal some obvious and subtle ways that class ceilings get imposed. One of the striking findings so far is that many of us walk away from privilege and achievement for the opportunity to work in more familiar surroundings. We’ve heard people say that they were just “more comfortable” working at the local regional college where the student body looks more like them and where they can “make a difference” in students’ lives. Meanwhile, some who do work in more privileged private institutions or renowned flagship research-centered universities encounter a lot of classism and often resort to “hiding” a big part of their identities.
At this point, you might wonder why you should care about whether highly educated successful people from the working class work in R1s or local colleges. There are a couple of good reasons why you should. First, much of the most influential research is produced at those “top” institutions, which confer professional access and power along with funding and attention. If people of working-class origin aren’t involved in that work, academic knowledge about working-class people in general will always be incomplete and sometimes just wrong. We’ve seen how that worked with knowledge about gender, race, and sexuality. Recent history reminds us that the academic gaze on the working class has a tendency to exoticize its object.
Second, making the class ceiling visible can help put the final lie to the myth of meritocracy and enable us to create a new narrative about how America works and a better vision on how we want it to work. We could create a world where everyone can earn a decent wage for an honest day’s work, enough to raise a family find a place to live, and make a good life.
It is time to confront the core problem of the myth of meritocracy: it embraces a hierarchical system that distributes a decent living to a favored few and insists that others deserve to be left behind. Michael Young, the British sociologist who coined the term, warned us about the dangers of true meritocracies decades ago. Inevitably, he cautioned, they would devolve into caste systems, where those born into educated families would reap the rewards of their parents’ and grandparents’ access to power while everyone else would be blamed for their impoverished lives. Eventually, those at the bottom would rise up out of righteous anger and envy and topple the whole structure.
That couldn’t actually happen, could it?
Allison L. Hurst is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University, where she teaches courses on the sociology of higher education, class inequality and social mobility, and sociological theory. She is one of the founders and current President of the Association of Working-Class Academics. Her current research explores the school to work transitions of college graduates.