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Is this the end of meritocracy?

Frank Bongiorno writes in Inside Story (3.8.17) that the evidence that birth and luck play an outsized role in our lives is overwhelming. So how, the author asks, has the idea of a meritocracy survived for so long?

‘The concept of meritocracy has taken a bit of a battering in recent times. But the demonstrable falseness of a claim like Alan Joyce’s — that everyone has the same opportunity to succeed regardless of where he or she comes from — is not sufficient to kill it off. Context always matters, and Joyce’s comment was published in the Australian Financial Review, a newspaper whose demographic is likely to be receptive to his view. When you’re successful, it’s reassuring to be told you are the architect of your own success. And because you almost certainly are smart, industrious and affluent, it’s all quite plausible, too.

‘The fact that Joyce is a highly successful migrant is also significant; the immigration myth and the meritocracy myth make a powerful brew. It was in the 1980s that observers increasingly began remarking on the fact that some of the richest business figures in Australia were postwar migrants, many from continental Europe. Some of the names that figured then — Lowy and Grollo, for instance — are still with us, the baton having been handed on to the next generation. (The implications of multigenerational power for the idea of meritocracy are rarely considered.)

‘… A quarter of a century later, the global financial crisis inflicted serious wounds on the meritocratic myth by vividly demonstrating that financial rewards have become radically disconnected from merit or usefulness. It is easy to underestimate the GFC’s significance as a turning point in the modern history of the West. It has wrecked the social compact that emerged from the second world war in a way that no Thatcher or Reagan, however ambitious, ever managed.’

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