The myth of meritocracy is one of America’s founding fables. The idea is that if a person simply works hard they will receive what they deserve. The logical consequences are that if someone is poor they simply haven’t worked hard enough. That because they are poor they deserve to be poor. The myth of meritocracy is known as a myth because that is what it is. It is a lie told to Americans as they come of age and enter the workforce to make sure that people continue to dream of that “American dream.” The dream of financial freedom, to live comfortably and raise a family. The aspiration of white suburban life, homeownership, and maybe even a life well lived.
The myth of meritocracy promises that if people manage to climb the corporate ladder, ever so slowly someone will reach this level. The truth is that the myth is a lie for so many people in America. Not because they don’t work hard enough, but because they happened to be born poor. If life were a videogame, a player’s “spawn point” determines quite literally everything about their existence the moment a person spawns in. People can work hard for their entire life and still not be millionaires. The overall point is that so many people are closer to homelessness than they ever will be to becoming millionaires.
A single mother of two could work two jobs for the rest of her life and still not live comfortably. There is something inherently flawed with a system that allows for these types of situations to happen. People don’t exist to labor in factories and fast food restaurants. But many do so that they can survive. While society still needs these jobs to exist, these jobs should come with accommodations like higher pay and unions. If everyone collectively agrees that these jobs are grueling and are generally painful for the mind, body, and spirit then why should the people who work them continue to suffer with low pay?
Once again, the point must be reiterated: most people are closer to homelessness than they ever are to becoming a millionaire. The idea of becoming “successful” is what prevents a lot of people from understanding their place in this economic system. The fact of the matter is that most people are a part of the working class. If a class is defined by one’s relationship to the ownership of the means of producing goods, then most people would be considered working class. If a person does not own a company or a business they are a member of the working class.
No One Should Live Like This
Most members of the working class work until they can’t anymore. No one should live like this. Eternally exhausted and sleep-deprived is the fates and realities of the many. People could be living much more fulfilled lives if they weren’t working two jobs just to make a living wage. There are ideas like a universal basic income that help alleviate this problem. Better unions and four-day work weeks could help with this issue. Anything really would help this situation because that is just how bad it has gotten. The myth of meritocracy continues to be a myth.
The reason why this is such a problem at all is that workers are being exploited en masse. Every day there is a new story about how an amazon worker passed out due to exhaustion or that they have to do grueling things because they don’t get adequate breaks. The myth of meritocracy serves only the owning class. The fantasy of prosperity only benefits those who are already in prosperity. The idea that one could just “work” their way out of poverty is ridiculous and almost insulting. While there are individual examples they aren’t representative of reality.
The people that “make it” are a part of an incredibly lucky group of people. While there was of course a relatively large amount of hard work involved, the ones who make it are an exception, not the example. The myth of meritocracy spits in the face of working-class people who work every single day.
Written by Kenneth Mazerat
Economic Policy Institute: State of Working America Wages 2019 by Elise Gould
CNN: How the world’s biggest four-day workweek trial run changed people’s lives by Anna Cooban
The Guardian: The myth of meritocracy: who really gets what they deserve? by Kwame Anthony Appiah