Dateline: May 2034
by Jon Huggett
Michael Young coined the term “meritocracy”, but left us guessing about what lies beyond. His 1958 book “The Rise of the Meritocracy” predicted that a new elite, picked by “merit”, would rise until arrested by a populist revolt in May 2034, led by women.
The book did not say what came next.
Now that we have arrived in 2034, we see that most of his predictions came true, early, as it happens. The “meritocratic” class did rise, and became the elite of the information age. IQ + Effort ruled.
The meritocracy lost its grip as the information age gave way to the attention age. The populists commanded attention. Their revolts lit the match under the meritocracy in 2016, earlier than Michael predicted. The meritocrats scorned the low IQ of the populists, but IQ no longer mattered as much. Power went to artificial intelligence (AI) and collective intelligence (CI).
I have lived through it all. I was born in 1957. At the grand old age of 77, I can look back and say that I’ve enjoyed each era. The book, “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” gave me my school, and gave my mother her university. The rise of the meritocracy gave me my career. And the fall of the meritocracy has given me my marriage, and my dignity.
It’s all in my photo album.
The End of the Industrial Age
Michael saw that sorting children by merit would lead to a divided world: a new ruling class, hoarding power and money, confident in its privilege; and the majority, left behind.
“Equality of opportunity” would be an opportunity for inequality. The new elite might abandon new institutions like the National Health Service, which offered equality of outcome. The new class could even take over the Labour Party, or undermine democracy itself.
I was born in 1957 in an NHS hospital, which saved my mother, and possibly me, too. My birth was very complicated. My mother lost pints of blood. A generation before she would have died. She was born in a basement flat in 1935.
In 1964, the new Labour government took “The Rise of The Meritocracy” to heart, and started to abolish the 11+ exam, which sorted children by IQ into segregated schools.
In 1968 I was in the first year to attend a new comprehensive school: Whitchurch High School. Had I been born a year earlier, I would have faced the 11+, which had rejected my mother. The new school proved tremendous, and helped me be the first person in my family to go to university.
The Information Age
Despite Michaels work, the meritocracy did rise. As the industrial age gave way to the information age, the meritocracy took over positions of power: in government, in business, in education, and in politics. Knowledge was valuable. The value of university education rose. IQ + Effort = Merit = Power.
As Michael predicted, the new ruling class drove up income differentials, and passed on its privilege on to its children. It kept adjusting the definition of “merit” to ensure that its kids had all the best opportunities. People’s social status and level of income became largely determined by the status of their parents. The new meritocratic elite took over the parties of the left and drove out working class support. They took over the bureaucracies and marginalised democratic institutions, like Parliament and local government.
What Michael did not predict was that the meritocracy would even take over the word itself. Michael coined the term “meritocracy” as a pejorative. He thought that an elite picked by merit would be nastier and more entitled than either an aristocracy, the elite of the agricultural age, or a plutocracy, the elite of the industrial age. But meritocrats said that meritocracy was a Good Thing: an organisation led by the most talented, or a fair world where anyone could rise to the top.
Labour PM Tony Blair praised meritocracy, as did Conservative PMs and US Presidents. Michael complained. It was not clear whether Tony had read the book, or, if he had, realised it was a satire.
I had not read the book, and also thought meritocracy was a Good Thing. I joined a company that was proud to say that it was a meritocracy. We were the vanguard of the information revolution. We all read “The Economist”. The firm paid well, and let me travel all over the world, even to Japan. My great-grandfather had told me about his visit there when he was a stoker with the Royal Navy.
The Dawn of the Attention Age
The information age ended when knowledge became abundant and free. Wikipedia, Facebook and the iPhone put all you needed to know at your fingertips. Knowledge was no longer scarce, and no longer the key to power.
Attention was now scarce. The meritocratic class did not get it. It was acting like the old upper class: arrogant and detached. It scorned the rest, who watched different TV. Universities had become the finishing schools for the offspring of the meritocracy, not ladders for people to rise from humble beginnings.
The new power went to whoever could command attention. The meritocracy stood back alongside the aristocracy and the plutocracy: still powerful, but no longer calling all the shots.
Equal marriage was the first big win of the attention age. Social media made us LGBT people visible, everywhere, at the same time. People discovered that friends loved someone of the same gender. Millions of conversations about marriage changed minds about marriage. Opinion polls show a huge swing in support for equal marriage.
Politicians followed the polls. The laws changed in the UK, the US, and France, in 2013.
Populists commanded attention, and won a series of “shock” victories over meritocrats. Brexit and Trump came from the right. Corbyn and Sanders came from the left. And there were upsets in Spain, France, Germany, Australia, and all over the world.
2016 split my world. My friends and family divided over Brexit.
Some saw the problem as the meritocracy: “They have made a fortune, while our wages have slipped. They needed their come-uppance. People should be treated equally. Everyone is worthy of equal respect.”
Others saw the problem as democracy: “The voters were bad (racist), mad (voting against their economic self-interest), or sad (losers). Better to have fewer votes (no referenda), make voting harder (like in North Carolina), or limit candidates (like in Singapore).”
Beyond the Meritocracy
If IQ + Effort was the equation that characterised 20th century society, then 21st century society has been characterised by a tussle between two equations.
Respect + Effort characterises the democracies. Respect, or “psychological safety”, is a key ingredient of CI – more than IQ, which science now questions, anyway. Women harness CI better than men. They have captured attention, and risen to power. Now, in 2034, women lead most democracies and many large organisations, too. The democracies have become more democratic, with more voting.
AI + Effort characterises the new hard-core meritocracies: digital autocracies, some companies, some religions, and even some families. They are tightly controlled from the top. They do not vote freely.
Respect + Effort
In 2017 the #MeToo movement opened the modern era of personal respect, which has unleashed collective intelligence in the democracies.
New power has brought new respect to the real majority, which used to be called “minorities”. It’s no longer socially acceptable to pat, grope, interrupt, tolerate, or categorise us. We are all now people.
The election of PM Megan Markle in 2024, and coincidentally, President Oprah Winfrey in the US launched wave of reform to make democracy more open and direct. In the last ten years we have seen the introduction of compulsory voting and voting by phone.
Transparency laws now show the real people and the real money. On social media, everyone has to show who they are, and say where they vote. All tax returns and ownerships are now public. We know where the money comes from, and where it goes. Democracy is now more like the X-factor than just putting an X on a piece of paper.
AI + Effort
China was always a meritocracy, never a democracy. It’s “social credit” system now monitors people with surveillance and AI. Some companies, religions and families are also like “digitocracies”, even when they are inside democracies. Amazon employees now have to keep their phone on 24/7. The Mormon Church tags its members.
Wealthy families implant chips in their children.
The digitocracies are mostly led by men, and are full of young men. Selective abortion in China, for example, has made women scarce. The men who do secure wives protect them like property.
Spare straight men
Women don’t need husbands any more. They now earn more than men. Sperm counts have fallen so low that it’s better to go to a bank.
The world has millions of spare straight men. Will they join armies to settle Respect + Effort vs. AI + Effort?
Jon has led five social enterprises, including the Social Innovation Exchange (SIX), incubated The Young Foundation, which brings together social innovators worldwide; All Out, the global campaign for LGBT equality; Khulisa, the crime prevention charity; the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration; and The STOP AIDS Project in San Francisco.
Jon advises social innovators globally.
He was a Partner with The Bridgespan Group in San Francisco and New York. Prior to that Jon was a Partner with Bain & Company in Johannesburg and Toronto.
Jon has written for The Guardian et al, and has visited half of the countries in the world.
Jon is a Senior Fellow of The Young Foundation.
For more information please visit: huggett.com