The myth of meritocracy
Celine Brookes-Smith, Elizabeth Henshaw, Katie Place, Dr Will Curvis and the late Dr Ben Campbell on ‘pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps’.
26 May 2022
Society has bought into the romanticised idea of ‘bootstrapping’, introduced by American author Horatio Alger around the turn of the 20th century. Sheer ‘hard work’ can, the theory goes, lead a person out of hardship and up the class hierarchy (Littler, 2013; Weiss, 1969). If you have ‘pulled yourself up by your bootstraps’, you have achieved success by your own efforts, starting from difficult circumstances and without help.
Bootstrapping infers we live in a society whereby intelligence + effort = succeeding by merit (Young, 1958). If you are bright enough, conscientious enough and dedicated enough you can prove yourself ‘worthy’ enough to, for example, attend university or enter professional careers. People who do not ‘make it’ must lack intelligence, skills, effort: they simply ‘did not try hard enough’. They themselves are to blame for their ‘failures’.
But pulling oneself up by bootstraps is a romanticised idea, disregarding structural, political, and societal level inequalities. Social, financial, and cultural barriers include poor-quality education, lack of access to opportunities and socio-economic deprivation (Friedman & Laurison, 2020). The myth of meritocracy overlooks how caregivers from more privileged backgrounds can provide their children with an upper hand – paying for extra tuition, and using social capital to obtain jobs, experience, or advice. Haralmabos and Holborn (2013) found class to be a better predictor of academic achievement than IQ level, suggesting the role of structural/societal inequalities for people from a working-class background. The 2020 A-level scandal, which showed that the poorest students were awarded the lowest grades, is further evidence of this.
The myth also ignores how individuals may use parts of their identity to affect their power to ‘make it’ e.g., being male, able-bodied, and neurotypical. Meritocracy ignores how different parts of our identity can intersect with class (Jury et al., 2017) to create further barriers and challenges e.g. race, sexuality (Taylor, 2012), and gender identity (Cotton et al., 2016), which can feel insurmountable.
In short, societal systems are to blame for people’s ‘failures’.
The false escape
In societal narratives, pursuing higher education and getting a professional career is seen as an ‘escape hatch’ from being working class. The idea that being working class is something to aspire away from is shaming and a way of alienating working-class individuals from their ‘roots’ when they have entered professional careers. This further perpetuates the myth that one cannot be working class and have a professional career (Crew, 2020). That’s despite the fact that ‘working class’ is more than your career and salary – it encompasses a life of experiences.
More working-class people are going through the ‘escape hatch’ and accessing higher education since the Higher Education Act in 2004. The act was part of a political aspiration to send half of the population’s young people to university but the number of working-class students entering and succeeding at tertiary level education remains lower than their middle class counterparts (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, 2014; Reay, 2021). Barriers faced by working-class people continue to exist and are consistent across higher education, academic, and professional careers (i.e. psychology, medicine, and law: Gardner, 2011; Lühe, 2014; Sifuentes, 2017). These include practical challenges, such as housing, finances, and the necessity of part-time employment, which have been shown to decrease the likelihood of working-class students embarking on higher education. Rates of stress and burnout are much higher compared to students from more affluent backgrounds (Moreau, 2006).
Working-class students are also less likely to achieve the highest degree classes and even less likely to continue education beyond an undergraduate degree (Hutchings & Archer, 2001). Reduced access to professional scaffolds like career guidance, mentorship, and support, coupled with a sense of alienation, mean an even smaller proportion of working-class students will access professional careers after graduating (Crozier & Reay, 2011; Jones & Nangah, 2021).
Class as a protected characteristic
The formalisation of measures of class-related disadvantage is ongoing (Day et al., 2020). Psychology’s input into these measures is vital, to capture the holistic and complex experience of working-class individuals. With formal recognition of class as a defined, measurable, protected characteristic, myths such as bootstrapping and meritocracy can be dismantled.
As class-related discrimination attracts more attention, it is imperative, now more than ever, to work with universities and employers to provide support for those from a working class background who are alienated in the environments pitched as their escape to the middle class world. Too often, obtaining that golden university ticket is seen as the end of the struggle, but there are continuous psychological, social, and economic barriers when accessing higher education and professional careers.
Being aware of the myth of meritocracy has been referred to as ‘class consciousness’, whereby working-class people become aware of the societal oppression they have experienced historically and currently (Kelsh, 2006; Social Mobility Commission, 2021). Promoting class consciousness for working-class people is important, and it is recommended that therapists promote this in their work, to enable people to accurately locate problems within systems rather than themselves (Trott & Reeves, 2018). This can only take advocacy so far; it is our belief that promoting the consciousness of class in middle- and upper-class people is just as important. By recognising our own privilege/s, or lack of, we can collectively challenge societal beliefs such as the myth of meritocracy.
- See also the ClassClinPsych position statement on the impact of class in Clinical Psychology.
The myth of meritocracy keeps class oppression alive. Myths can only be dispelled when they are seen, heard, and spoken about.
As a collective, we believe in the power of stories from those affected by experiences related to class. We can feel vulnerable when sharing personal experiences, but we offer some of our own experiences in the hope that they bring the issues discussed to life. This is how the myth of meritocracy has manifested for us, in our personal and professional journeys so far.
‘There were so many more financial barriers than I ever expected’
I identify as being working class, and the first person in my family to go to university and pursue a professional career. For years I bought into the idea that I got where I am today through sheer hard work. That’s a story we often tell ourselves.
Now I acknowledge the barriers I have experienced with being working class, especially a lack of economic capital. I worked multiple jobs from the age of 14, often leaving me one day off a month. Then at 24, I worked full-time alongside a part-time MSc. I always volunteered to work over bank holidays, Christmas, New Year and extra hours. I knew my parents would not be able to pay my way. I needed money for driving lessons, for having and running a car (often a requirement for Assistant Psychologist roles), to pay for food at university (my housemates joked about plain pasta).
I needed to pay for higher education – this was before loans were introduced for masters degrees – so when I hit 16, I worked and saved. A lot. I also knew I had to stay at the university I did my undergraduate at to do my MSc, because that meant I got 20 per cent off the fees.
I did all this because I knew that was how I would get what I was told I needed to ‘make it’, via the ‘escape hatch’ of higher education and into a professional career. There were so many more financial barriers than I ever expected, including only being able to apply for permanent and full-time roles and having to pay hundreds of pounds to present and attend conferences.
I also contend with additional barriers that come with being dyslexic, which wasn’t confirmed until after my undergraduate degree. For years I thought my learning difference (in particular struggling with pronunciation, spelling, telling the time and grammar) was because I was working class… I must just be a bit ‘stupid’. I was initially placed in lower to middle sets in school and was predicted to get low to average grades. Somewhere along the line I found myself in the top sets, wondering how on earth I ended up here with all the ‘posh kids’. Having a confirmation of dyslexia completely shook up a fundamental belief I had about myself that was so intertwined with my working-class identity. The report said I had a high IQ. Yep. Me. A high IQ!
I also want to acknowledge the parts of my identity and experiences that have given me an advantage. Although my family and I are working class, the area we lived in is now relatively affluent, so there are good primary schools, high schools and an excellent grammar school in the town. The quality of education I was able to access because of where I lived was paramount in providing me with an advantage. If I had lived in one of the other nearby towns it might have been a very different experience.
I attended the grammar sixth form which gave me some cultural and social capital that I relied on to access university. I made friends with affluent peers, and learned how to present myself as less working-class. I knew that the less working-class I appeared the more I would fit in with peers also pursuing professional careers, which meant I would then fit in better with colleagues in professional careers, as well as people on my interview panels (for jobs or higher education).
I was heavily supported by teachers and encouraged to write my UCAS form. I have no doubt that the guidance in presenting myself in the ‘right way’, and being able to put that I went to a grammar school, all contributed to me going to a top 10 university even though I didn’t get the minimum grades required.
University further added to my social and cultural capital in ways I never imagined. I continued to shape myself to appear less and less working class, which did not go unnoticed in my family and peer groups. I altered my dress, my accent, my mannerisms, my interests. I felt that if I was going to get where I wanted to be, I needed to leave my working-class identity and self behind. If someone saw me as working-class in a world not meant for working-class people, I feared they would write me off and judge me as being ‘stupid’, ‘common’, ‘incapable’ and ‘incompetent’.
It was not until I joined the ClassClinPsych collective a few years ago that I started to feel a sense of belonging in this career. I reconnected with parts of my working-class identity and recognised the strengths it gives me, both personally and professionally. Now I’m here, soon to be a qualified Clinical Psychologist, I want to be part of shifting unhelpful narratives about working class people – like the myth of meritocracy and shame people feel. We have to continue these conversations in the hope of change towards equity in the profession.
Katie Place (pictured, top right)
'I dreaded "wasting" the opportunity of university'
Class consciousness has pervaded most of my life. As someone who grew up on a council estate, I knew my home situation was a little different to the other kids at the primary school I attended despite being out of the catchment area. Things that may seem small – a friend confessing their parents forbid them from playing out nearby to my childhood home, or not being able to afford to go on the upcoming school trip – amalgamated into a sense of shame that was born out of microaggressions towards working-class individuals.
As I got older, I tried to push through the shame I was feeling by allowing others into this space. A comment that stuck with me was ‘This house really isn’t what I expected from someone like you’. What I think they meant is that a student with straight A’s surely could not live here. This comment reminds me frequently of the narrative that individuals without economic privilege are not conscientious enough or bright enough to succeed.
At university, class consciousness really came into focus for me. I turned down an offer to study at a top university as the applicant’s visit day left me feeling alienated. I did not have sporting or musical accomplishments – how could my mum have offered that when sometimes we struggled for the basics? I remember a teacher standing at the front and asking the class ‘Is anyone here on free school meals? You can have a copy of the textbook for free.’ I did not raise my hand. The shame of being working class, and the pressure to mask my working class-ness, kept me quiet.
Confronted with the stark differences between me and my peers at the university I attended, my mental well-being suffered. I became further overworked. Instead of long summers travelling it was long shifts – partly for the monetary value, but mostly out of the fear of ever being without enough again, and for the dread of ‘wasting’ the opportunity of university and not being able to secure my ‘escape’ from the working-class.
I too believed that the harder I worked the more likely I was to succeed. But looking back I can see that ‘hard work’ is not rewarded equally. Rewards are not promised to those that lack social and economic capital, or have disadvantages due to other minoritised social identities.
When I share my experiences with those less burdened by the weight of class-based discrimination they often congratulate me for ‘making it’. But it’s a dangerous trope to use those who have broken through the class-ceiling as an example of how meritocracy is working just fine. The danger comes in feeding the narrative that escaping the working-class makes difficult experiences worthwhile, the idea that being working-class is in-itself a bad thing, and the idea that those who have not graduated to the middle class did not work hard enough.
Now – conscious of my social and economic class – I face new barriers. I am confronted by those who will not regard me as working class due to doing well academically, the job I have, the way I talk or the social circles I am part of. I would like to acknowledge that these things give me some privilege, and that I have been fortunate enough to be able to ‘pass’ as middle class.
However, stripping away my class identity, and the class identity of those who have accessed enough social power to speak out against the myth of meritocracy, silences those affected by class discrimination and allows these myths to continue. I hope that by sharing some of my personal story I can validate the experiences of other working-class people.
Celine Brookes-Smith (pictured, bottom left)
‘It always felt like I was playing catch up to those around me’
When I started university I really struggled to connect to my peers. There was probably a combination of factors that contributed to this, such as being autistic and coming from a working-class background, the transition of leaving home and the local sixth form and moving to a new city, and then navigating higher education and the people within higher education. Other people just seemed to ‘know’ what they were doing – how the systems worked, or a friend of a friend or a family member who might be able to help – whereas I knew nobody. It always felt like I was playing catch up to those around me. There were times during my undergrad when I thought about dropping out. However, I also knew there was nothing to fall back on if this didn’t work out. My family very much bought into the idea of university as being the ‘escape hatch’.
I tried to do as much as possible in order to make my CV stand out. I thought everyone in my cohort would be in a similar position. It was when I started to speak to other members of my cohort that I became aware of class consciousness because of the opportunities others had through their social capital – for example, because they had connections who already worked in the profession. I found myself wondering why these options were not available to me despite my additional award programmes and volunteering. I hoped this would enable me to get my foot in the door and prove to family around me, and potential recruiters, that I really was trying. Online application forms would flag that I had input the hours and dates wrong on the ‘past experience’ section, as I was working 60+ hour weeks. I don’t remember being particularly aware of this at the time, but I think somewhere I knew I needed to go ‘above and beyond’.
These reflections aren’t meant to meant to minimise some privileges I hold, with being a white cisgendered woman pursuing a career in Clinical Psychology. As class is spoken about more and more within the profession, it’s important we don’t fall into the trap of having a ‘single story’ about class. People should reflect on their own background and privilege throughout training and post-qualification.
Liz Henshaw (pictured, bottom right)
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