Meritocracy – what is it?

Meritocracy – what is it?

Mature Times reviews The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits

The generally accepted definition of a meritocracy is “a society that is governed by people that are selected according to merit and not privilege”. What this means, in essence, is that anyone with a degree of skill, imagination and hard work can aspire to reach the highest level of society.

In other words, in a meritocracy a person can achieve respect, earn money, assume responsibilities and gain social standing through hard work – in fact through merit alone. The opposite of a meritocracy is nepotism where you achieve all of the above things not through your own endeavours, but simply though the lucky accident of your birth and therefore your place in society.


An intriguing subject, and one that tells us a lot about our society and the life we lead. Many people strive to better themselves through their own efforts and quite rightly this is seen as a virtue, wanting to get ahead and improve your life for the benefit of yourself and your society. But if you actually sit down and think about things is this always a good attribute to have and is it always good for us all or for society in general?

This is one of the central questions of a fascinating new book from author Daniel Markovits called The Meritocracy Trap who actually argues that meritocracy is bad for society, that it creates new elites that allows families to hoard wealth and privilege across generations.

The argument goes that because we all strive to “better” ourselves, we all compete against each other and from that there are two basic outcomes that we can achieve. The first is that all our efforts and work results in us not actually improving ourselves, but actually in, at best, retaining the status quo of our position, but having to work harder and harder to do so as everyone else also strives around you.


The second is that the drive to better yourself actually ensnares you, both in the efforts you have to undertake to achieve your meritocratic rise in society and once you have achieved this, in the efforts that you have to undertake to maintain your elite and privileged position. This means that when you actually get there you can’t enjoy it because you have no time to do so, your time being constantly gobbled up in your desire to maintain your position and status.

Markovits argues that meritocracy does not actually serve anyone well and that in fact escaping the meritocracy trap would benefit virtually everyone. Emancipation from meritocracy, he argues, would restore the aspiring middle classes of society to full participation on both economic and social life.
As a commentary on society today the book makes fascinating reading, not all of it pleasant and it makes you wonder just where we are heading as a society!

The Meritocracy Trap by Daniel Markovits is published by Allen Lane. RRP £25 hardback.