Beth Anker – ‘Meritocracy: The Politician’s Pipe Dream’

“A well argued, reflective and strongly researched analysis of the limits and limitations of meritocracy.” –  Andrew Jack, global education editor for the Financial Times and Orwell Youth Prize judge 2023

Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, speaking at LSE, 12 March 2002 – credit LSE Library

Upon first glance, a meritocracy – a world in which people can go as far as their merit takes them, and where those in power are there because of their own merit – seems to be a good thing: a marker of an equal society, and something within our grasp. For example, take the grammar school system: students who pass the test have the opportunity to aim high in an academically oriented school; push for the highest grades and attend top universities. However, I am in the majority of students who were tutored to pass the 11+. It is no longer the smartest students who are passing the test, it’s the richest ones. This illusion of meritocracy creates the idea amongst grammar school students that they are more worthy than their peers, and any success that comes their way is a product of their own hard work and talents, rather than a combination of effort, opportunity and, most importantly, luck. This encourages them to look down on their less successful peers; if the ‘winners’ deserve their success then the ‘losers’ deserve their squalor. This meritocratic hubris (Sandel, 2021, 28) is inescapable as long as humans insist on being a selfish species.

The harm caused by a meritocracy is not limited to those who are unsuccessful. The idea of a meritocracy, as it is generally thought of today, focuses heavily on academic success as a marker of merit, undermining the dignity of work and manual labour. A society cannot function on academics and politicians alone; it needs lorry drivers and factory workers. These people who arguably work just as hard as lawyers or doctors are conveniently forgotten in this “Great Meritocracy”. The average university lecturer earns double that of an average cleaner. Are university lecturers, on average, twice as good at what they do? I doubt it.

The culture surrounding elite jobs and education [becomes] more unattainable with every generation that lives through it…

Meritocracy is also bad for those on top: its ‘winners’. The culture surrounding elite jobs and education exacerbates itself, becoming more unattainable with every generation that lives through it, slowly destroying the welfare of those that are thriving, making their topple inevitable. In recent years, various reports have shown that students feel that their mental health has been significantly impacted by the pressures of elite academic settings. An apt reflection of this is that young people in “high-achieving” settings experience up to seven times the levels of anxiety and depression as their peers in other school settings (Luthar, 2020, 7); the ‘winners’ are actively being harmed by their ‘prize’.

The Achilles’ heel of a meritocracy is not its own fault. Instead it is due to our society’s values. Perhaps, if we were to completely reconstruct society from its foundations, a fair meritocracy would be viable, but the ideas that rule make it an impossibility. A meritocracy cannot work in a society that values superiority over success like our own. How can one go as far as their merit takes them, when there can only be the top “1%” with the other 99 below it? Someone, in fact most people, have to be losing, just so those who do win can gorge themselves on their spoils. The attraction of a meritocracy is its promise of equality for how can a society with superiority as its pillar, be, in any way shape or form, equal?

The idea of being successful is almost synonymous with being wealthy.

Another pitfall of meritocracy is the fault of our society. The idea of being successful is almost synonymous with being wealthy. You are not seen as successful if you’re not wealthy, and you are successful if you are wealthy with no regard to how hard you’ve worked or how good you are at what you do, as it is assumed that you must be one of the elites to walk among them. This is typified in grammar schools. It is not possible for everyone to be successful when wealth accumulation is the proxy measure of success. For a meritocracy to even be a consideration, we need to decouple achievement from wealth, and deconstruct our ideas of what it means to be successful. As it is, there is a lottery of birth, as there is a very strong correlation between the material wealth of the family a child is born into and their educational attainment (von Stumm et al., 2022), therefore creating a plutocracy, rather than the “Great Meritocracy” that has been promised to us time and time again. By Tony Blair in 1999 (White & Blair, 1999), by Theresa May in 2016 (May, 2016) and by Boris Johnson in 2019 (Havery & Caldecott, 2019). The inability to deliver equality of opportunity as promised transcends both decades and parties; Prime Ministers united in their inability to provide equality for their people.

A true meritocracy would be better for those within it.

Given that the premise of this article is that we do not live in a meritocracy, one question persists: would a genuine meritocracy be an improvement? I believe that a true meritocracy would be better for those within it. A prerequisite for this meritocracy is for everyone to be provided with a meaningful opportunity to thrive. In this alternate reality, people would be free to shape their own dreams, rather than mould them in the cast of wealth. Any avenue they chase would be in pursuit of self-actualization, rather than a necessity of survival, eradicating this race for wealth we justify by falsely calling it a meritocracy. Under this new status quo, division of resources would be equitable and therefore achievement would primarily be for self-fulfilment rather than material gain.

This meritocracy works because by removing the shackles of economic expediency; everyone is free to fulfil their potential. Therefore, everyone lives in a world of their own personal bests being achieved and is fulfilled and content. In this true meritocracy, everyone is happy. However, this construct will remain a fantasy until such a time as human rights are expanded to meet all genuine human needs to be able to live a free life. The economic imperatives of food, shelter and clothing will prevent a true meritocracy from ever coming to fruition.

It can be hard to look outside of our own veil of ignorance and challenge things we know to be unfair. It’s easy to justify our own situation by demeaning our own power and influence. We do not live in a meritocracy and the idea that we do is poisoning us. As long as we use the bodies of this impossible system’s losers as a platform to elevate the wealthy; we are doomed to be forever divided. We are fed success stories as a way to incentivize the masses, when we all know that success stories are just that. Stories.

Until we stop focussing on personal gain and instead look towards common good, meritocracy, despite being promised, will remain a pipe dream.


Havery, G., & Caldecott, S. (2019, December 14). Boris Johnson holds victory rally in Sedgefield. The Northern Echo. sedgefield/

Luthar, S. S. (2020, June). Students in High-Achieving Schools: Perils of Pressures to Be “Standouts”. Adversity and Resilience Science, 7. chools_Perils_of_Pressures_to_Be_Standouts

May, T. (2016, September 9). Britain, the great meritocracy: Prime Minister’s speech. GOV.UK. Retrieved May 20, 2023, from rs-speech

Sandel, M. J. (2021). The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? Penguin Books, Limited.

von Stumm, S., Cave, S. N., & Wakeling, P. (2022). Persistent association between family socioeconomic status and primary school performance in Britain over 95 years. npj Science of Learning.

White, M., & Blair, T. (1999, January 15). Blair hails middle class revolution | Politics. The Guardian.

Beth Anker is a junior winner in The Orwell Youth Prize 2023