We’re at an inflection point. The pandemic has disrupted our lives and upended so many of our assumptions and routines. At the same time, this has created a greater sense of possibility. And there is much more in play than just how and where we work. Underneath those questions, there’s a deep shift happening about the nature of work itself and how we value it. The pandemic has both accelerated this shift by exposing fundamental weaknesses in our thinking about work and worth, and widened the possibilities for what can come after. The question isn’t just how to reopen the economy, but how to create a society in which people are valued no matter the nature of their work.
Into this conversation come two important and like-minded new books. The first is The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael Sandel, the celebrated professor of political philosophy at Harvard, whose online course “Justice” has millions of devoted fans. The second is Head, Hand, Heart: Why Intelligence Is Over-Rewarded, Manual Workers Matter, and Caregivers Deserve More Respect, by David Goodhart, the British author and founder of Prospect magazine.
The two books come from opposite sides of the Atlantic, but explore the same theme. Both are important roadmaps for how we came to find ourselves in our current moment — with a broken system that was ill-equipped to call on and summon the collective sacrifice and solidarity required to manage the pandemic.
The thesis of both books is, in essence, that the widening inequalities of wealth have been accompanied by widening inequalities of dignity and feelings of worth, purpose and belonging. And that this second inequality is every bit as dangerous to our collective well-being and the fabric of our democracy as the first.
For Sandel, this is the tyranny of the meritocracy. As he puts it, meritocracy is “a double-edged sword, inspiring in one way but invidious in another. It congratulates the winners but denigrates the losers, even in their own eyes.” And the losers have deeply internalized a sense of failure and blame. This creates hubris in the winners of the meritocracy, and humiliation and resentment in the losers. And it’s not hard to see how this plays into the hands of authoritarian populists who would exploit that resentment.
Goodhart divides work into work of the head (cognitive work), work of the hand (manual labor), and work of the heart (caring work). As Goodhart writes, the relative power of each has grown very lopsided in recent years: “Western society has been dominated in the past two generations by centrifugal forces that have spread global openness and individual freedom but weakened collective bonds and enabled Head work to claim undue reward while Hand and Heart work has diminished in dignity and pay. The knowledge economy has placed cognitive meritocracy at the center of the status hierarchy, and the cognitively blessed have thrived — but many others feel they have lost place and meaning.”
The term “meritocracy,” the authors note, stems from the 1958 book Rise of the Meritocracy by British politician and sociologist Michael Young. The book looks back from the year 2034 at a U.K. in which one’s place in society has gone from being based on heredity and nepotism to one determined by achievement and merit. It was meant as a dystopian satire but has been strangely prescient.
“For Young,” Sandel writes, “meritocracy was not an ideal to aim at but a recipe for social discord. He glimpsed, decades ago, the harsh meritocratic logic that now poisons our politics and animates populist anger.”
But as Sandel notes, the idea of meritocracy is deeply embedded in the American psyche. The Founders even called themselves “Men of Merit,” and “the American Dream” is just another way of describing upward social and economic mobility. Sandel calls this the “Rhetoric of Rising” — that if you simply work hard and play by the rules, the system will reward you. Opportunity is there for all. “This country will always be a place where you can make it if you try,” Sandel quotes President Obama saying in 2013. Of course, with only 5% of those born in the lowest quintile of income making it to the highest, this can no longer be accepted as the truth. “The rhetoric of rising now rings hollow,” writes Sandel. “In today’s economy, it is not easy to rise. Americans born to poor parents tend to stay poor as adults.”
And it’s made even harder given that getting into an elite university is seen as one of the only ways to secure not just income, but prestige. It’s how those at the top pass their meritocratic inheritance on to the next generation. As Sandel notes, the percentage of low-income students at prestigious colleges and universities has been stagnant since 2000. And it’s the same in the U.K., where Goodhart writes that “one form of human aptitude — cognitive-analytical ability, or the talent that helps people to pass exams and then handle information efficiently in their professional lives — has become the gold standard of human esteem.”
It’s no wonder that for many affluent parents, the entire project of parenthood becomes consumed with preparing their young charges for the tests, the trials and the make-or-break checkpoints and “the soul-destroying demands” that the meritocracy requires. “It is an anxious but understandable response to rising inequality and the desire of affluent parents to spare their progeny the precarity of middle-class life,” writes Sandel.
These forces have changed the very nature of childhood, which for many more fortunate families has become a long, harried, overscheduled gauntlet of lessons, placement tests and “enrichment” courses. But not much playtime, which, as Sandel notes, dropped 25% from 1981 to 1997. What filled that time? Homework, which more than doubled over the same period. Even worse, from 1976 to 2012, the time spent by parents helping their kids with homework went up more than five times.
And the most pernicious part of this game is that even the winners are losers. As Sandel writes, “those who prevail on the battlefield of merit emerge triumphant but wounded.” The “habit of hoop-jumping” comes at significant cost, even when you successfully make it through the hoops. We can see it in the epidemic of mental health problems among teens and young adults from higher income brackets. As Madeline Levine put it in The Price of Privilege, “In spite of their economic and social advantages, they experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country.”
We can see it, too, in the rise of perfectionism among young people. In a survey of more than 40,000 American, British and Canadian students, researchers found a 32% increase in perfectionism from 1989 to 2016. How bad has it gotten? At many colleges notifications of grades are timed to allow students to access mental health services.
So the reward for all that anxiety and striving in childhood is what Sandel describes as a “soul-killing, resume-stuffing, perfection-seeking” college experience, instead of what college was ostensibly supposed to be about: exploring ideas, discovering passions, learning to think critically, expanding horizons and pondering the big questions, like what does it mean to lead a good life?
But the consequences of these cultural values go beyond ruining childhood, or turning college life into an airless exercise in careerism — they erode the bonds of community, and severely undervalue the talents and contributions of millions of people who don’t work with their heads.
And the results have been devastating. As Angus Deaton and Anne Case write, the increase in “deaths of despair” from suicide, drugs and alcoholism is driven by more than economics: “It is the loss of meaning, of dignity, of pride, and of self-respect that comes with the loss of marriage and of community that brings on despair, not just or even primarily the loss of money.” It’s why in 2019, the number of opioid fatalities went over 50,000 for the first time and life expectancy declined for the third year in a row.
Both books have different prescriptions and policy proposals for how to move forward — like investing more in vocational schools, apprenticeships and life skills — but what we need to start with is redefining success. The idea of asking ourselves “what is a good life” is at the core of every spiritual and philosophical tradition. But as we slowly abandoned the question, the default answer became defining a good life only in terms of success, and reducing success to money and power. So much so that success, money and power have practically become synonymous. This idea of success can work — or at least appear to work — in the short term. But over the long term, money and power by themselves are like a two-legged stool — you can balance on them for a while, but eventually you’re going to topple over. And that’s where we find ourselves now.
So we need to redefine the rules, and redefine success. “We view success,” writes Sandel, “the way the Puritans viewed salvation.” Indeed, we view success as salvation itself. Something to be worshipped, something that everything in our lives should revolve around. When we chase a flawed definition of success, the danger is not only that it takes us to a place that’s not truly where we want to go, it’s that on the way we’re much more likely to miss the things that really do bring us happiness and fulfillment, like connection, meaning, impact.
“A perfect meritocracy banishes all sense of gift or grace,” writes Sandel. “It diminishes our capacity to see ourselves as sharing a common fate. It leaves little room for the solidarity that can arise when we reflect on the contingency of our talents and fortunes. This is what makes merit a kind of tyranny, or unjust rule.” That’s why many efforts that focus solely on distributive justice and remedying financial inequality — critical though they are — don’t go far enough. We also need what Sandel calls “contributive justice,” more “opportunity to win the social recognition and esteem that goes with producing what others need and value.”
Science has confirmed ancient wisdom: we’re hardwired to seek meaning and purpose. And we will never find them in money and power alone, no matter how much the meritocracy allows us to acquire. As Goodhart writes, “it is our attachments that give us meaning and purpose. The most powerful route to meaning is through love, mutual dependence, and serving others… and a feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves.”
The pronouncement in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” is a profoundly spiritual statement. We’re clearly not equal in terms of the resources rewarded by the meritocracy. But in matters of the heart and character, we are all created equal. When it comes to ultimate moments, like in rescue situations on planes and ships, the people aboard are referred to as “souls.” And as souls we are all indeed created equal.
The world of the Head, Goodhart writes is mostly secular, “with little feel for the mysteries of life.” He calls humanism a “disappointing failure,” which has been effective in mounting the case against religion, “but has provided no convincing alternative set of ideas on how to live well.” So it’s not surprising that, as David Brooks writes, as the 20th century progressed, there was a decline in the use of moral, spiritual and other-directed words like thankfulness, appreciation, compassion, kindness, helpfulness, patience, faith and wisdom.
These aren’t just virtues to aspire to; they’re qualities that, like muscles, we can strengthen every day. They’re all qualities that lead to success of the kind that truly does make us happy. But right now we hear about these qualities mostly in commencement speeches. What might happen if we taught these life skills while our children were still in school? And there’s no better time to start than now, when school has been so fundamentally disrupted. Switching to remote school allows us to rethink our curriculum. When so many children are disconnected from their peers, it’s even more important to instill qualities of the heart like empathy, resilience, gratitude and community. It’s a way of going upstream to fix our broken definition of success, and establishing a healthier balance of head, heart and hand in our next generation — not to mention preparing them for the jobs of the future in the ever-growing caring economy.
And we can all benefit from finding ways to nurture these life skills in our own lives. The American Academy of Arts & Sciences recently released a report that found that Americans’ engagement with the humanities has gone up during the pandemic. In addition to more people seeking out works of fiction, or history, or music and art, the study noted that 38% of respondents reported thinking about “the ethical aspects of a choice in their life.”
The pandemic has also begun a more direct conversation about what work we value, and what was before taken for granted. One of the first cultural shifts early on in the pandemic was the renewed appreciation not just of doctors, but of caregivers and frontline workers like food service and delivery workers. This “pause for reflection,” Goodhart writes, allows us to “reconsider what we value most deeply.”
It’s a reconsideration that’s been a long time coming. In 1968, in his speech during the Memphis sanitation strike, Martin Luther King summed up our modern dilemma: “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation workers if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage is in the final analysis as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
The pandemic exposed not just our lack of preparedness in our healthcare system, but a lack of preparedness on a much deeper level. Along with medical supplies, we realized the value of being able to draw on stores of connection and empathy, meaning and resilience. But now we know that we need them more than ever. A new study by Mental Health America showed that from January to September of this year, the number of those seeking help from the organization for depression or anxiety went up a staggering 93%. “Severe depression, severe anxiety, psychosis that’s already emerged — they aren’t going to go away just because one of the precipitating factors goes away, like the pandemic,” said Mental Health America CEO Paul Gionfriddo.
Everything about how we live and work has been turned upside down. And that means everything is on the table. We should use this moment not just to create safer ways of working in the office, or more productive and efficient ways of working at home. We should use it to ask ourselves what is our definition of success, and how we define a good life. And we should use it to ask ourselves: are we valuing those who make our daily lives possible? Are we connected to them?
The pandemic has made the unthinkable thinkable. It’s made us see much more clearly what we value in life and what we value in others. That’s the part of this tragic year we need to use as a seed to nurture a new definition of success, one that allows everyone to live a good life.
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