Myth of merit turns on redundant pandemic workers


Having coined the term “meritocracy” more than 60 years ago, sociologist Michael Young crystallised what has become a deeply rooted belief in the power of the individual to command their own destiny, rather than be subject to external forces outside their control.

The powerful sway of this doctrine is laid bare in a recent study from Kings College London which found an unforgiving view among many in the UK towards those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic.

Despite the exceptional circumstances, an astonishing 47 per cent of people questioned said those made redundant during the past year had likely been underperforming at work, while just 31% attributed the misfortunes of the newly-unemployed to bad luck.

Authors of the report, entitled “Unequal Britain”, said the overall findings showed “meritocratic and individualistic tendencies” are likely to temper calls for action on inequality, with British people less concerned about race, gender and generational disparities than the imbalances between geographic areas.

Nearly two-thirds of those questioned – 61% – cited the difference between deprived and more affluent areas as the most serious type of inequality in the UK. This was far ahead of race, gender and generational disparities, despite the abundance of evidence showing that ethnic minorities, women, and the oldest and youngest workers have been disproportionately afflicted by the economic crisis.

Less than half put racial differences in their top three or four most serious types of inequalities, and less than a third included gender inequality. The public were least concerned about the gender pay gap getting worse because of the crisis, with 32% saying they would not consider it a problem if this were to happen.

Two-thirds said it would be a problem if the income gap between white people and ethnic minorities grew because of the coronavirus crisis, while 24% said this wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps most shocking, 13% attributed lower earnings and higher unemployment among ethnic minorities to a lack of their motivation or willpower.

Blatant racism aside, the focus on geographical inequalities will be music to the UK Government’s ears as it forges ahead with “levelling up”. But creating better parity isn’t simply a matter of geography; it requires tackling inequality at every level, in all forms. Without a holistic approach, we will create deeper divides along existing and possibly new, unanticipated fault lines.

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Posted on March 9, 2021