Rich-People Problems? The Summer of Elite Discontent

Why should one group have a monopoly on meritocracy?

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This has been a summer of elite discontent.

First there was the feverishly debated essay by Princeton’s Anne-Marie Slaughter about the inability of privileged professional women like her to “have it all” — career stardom and family fulfillment. Then Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christensen asked why so many of his HBS classmates have lived lives without purpose or integrity. Now comes a damning book by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, The Twilight of the Elites, which indicts the nation’s leadership class for self-dealing self-centeredness — inciting many in that class to self-justifying self-analysis.

(MORE: Judith Warner: We Have to Stop Talking About ‘Having It All’)

It’s somewhere between poignant and pitiable that educated overachievers seem only lately to be realizing that they (we — who am I kidding?) aren’t guaranteed happiness or esteem. But the real problem today isn’t that things are stressful for the most affluent and credentialed 20% or 10% or 1%; it’s that for the rest of the country social mobility has all but disappeared. Meritocracy may be a grind, but for those outside the upper-middle class, it’s simply ground to a halt.

Consider that in the U.S. today the strongest predictor of a child’s future wealth is now the wealth of his or her parents. Forty percent of people in the bottom quintile — and the top quintile — are destined to stay there, a level of class stickiness that feels un-American. The ability to do better than one’s parents is now lower here than in class-bound Britain and other industrialized nations.

Mobility in a literal sense has also slowed. People are moving less, and those who do tend to be more affluent. They are moving to cities of the so-called creative class and to clustered neighborhoods of similarly educated people. The net result is that segregation by privilege is taking root in countless insidious ways.

(MORE: Charles Murray: The New Upper Class and the Real Reason We Dislike Them)

Some might ask what the problem is. After all, the meritocracy we have today, which centers on test scores and college degrees while being attentive to diversity, is more fair and inclusive than the WASP old boys’ club. But here’s the reality. Today’s system has created a constant scramble to get into the right preschool/high school/college/dating pool. And as Hayes astutely notes, once people think they’ve made it, their tendency is to ensure their heirs and allies do too — by deploying accrued advantages on their behalf or by rigging the game outright. Call it the cultural contradiction of meritocracy: hard work and fair play lead to privilege, which then undermines hard work and fair play.

The deeper problem is that merit itself is misunderstood. Merit — that is, talent plus hard work — is meaningless without opportunity. And opportunity is now more concentrated and monopolized than ever. Today it remains the case that a star can come from anywhere. See President Obama. But it is not the case that talent is rewarded wherever it comes from. See your local high-poverty school.

We’ve got to do three things to reverse this. Invest more in opportunity, with a front-loaded focus on early learning and life-skills mentoring initiatives like Year Up. Recycle opportunity, through progressive and estate taxation, so that opportunity monopolies can’t metastasize. And create more shared experiences — like national service — where we have the opportunity to be equal citizens.

The opportunity gap doesn’t have to be a partisan issue. Opportunity Nation, a coalition that includes senior Republicans and Democrats, proves that. But the issue has to matter to the elite more than their own afflictions or short-term interests. Ultimately, there’d be no better proof that meritocracy works than if today’s meritocrats gave themselves more competition.

MORE: Jon Meacham: The American Dream: The Perfect Idea for Dark Times?