The Meritocracy Trap

In “The Meritocracy Trap”, Yale Law Professor Daniel Markovits writes about the history of work and education in modern America. He asserts that Aristocratic dynasties based on land have been overtaken by meritocratic dynasties. The transfer of wealth in meritocratic dynasties has been facilitated through education.

Markovits states that education has become the labour market’s preferred sorting mechanism for class. “Education maps the fault line that separates workers in the newly polarized labour market.”

In the mid-twentieth century many workers were groomed from entry level positions to eventually take on leadership roles. However, nowadays “elite education has displaced continuous workplace training in favour of discrete degrees.”

As a result, families now pass on their class through education. This has led wealthy families to invest more resources in their children’s education and has led to an arms race in education. By the time their children get to university, they are in fact better positioned to excel in post-secondary education and to get admitted into graduate school.

Markovits gives the example of the demographics at Yale Law School. At Yale Law School only a quarter of the class is first generation professionals. Similarly, at the University of Toronto, about 10% of the student body is the first person in their family to attend post-secondary school. 57% of students are the first person in their family to attend graduate school.

Once graduate students enter the marketplace, they continue to work with the same or even greater industry. Additional hours spent working forces workers to cut essential parts out of their life. They “deploy their training with intense industry”. Markovits points to the hours elite law firms require associates to bill as an example. As a result of the immense hours worked, the meritocratic ideal that income should track work rather than birth has become “the root of a new disease.”

“The Meritocracy Trap” is a provocative read, and I recommend it to people interested in the history of education and work in the knowledge economy. Markovits’ description of the current preference for discrete degrees speaks to the evolving position of articling. Nowadays law degrees have displaced continuous workplace training for minting new lawyers. There is a greater expectation that articling students come to the workforce already trained for practice.


(Views are my own and do not reflect the views of any organization.)





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