2018 & 2081: Where are we now & Where are we headed?

by Luke Billingham


2018: IQ + effort = reward?

Hamza[1] cries at least once most of the times we talk. He is among the most driven, dedicated and hard-working people I’ve met. He’s desperate to strive. He recently graduated with a First, through intelligence and sheer effort. He’s straining to get more interviews, to get a foot into the economy, to make money. He’s been thinking about his career since he was about twelve. I don’t think he wants to be socially mobile. He doesn’t want to rise above his family, his class or our area. He wants to improve their conditions, to reduce the constant grinding pressure. His parents are struggling financially and with mental health problems, as is he, and at least one of his siblings. All of this weighs down on him – it’s visible in his eyes and evident in his voice.

As his youth worker, I have to give Hamza hope. All I can do is help him to develop himself, even though I’m aware that all the clichés of disadvantage are true of him: the odds are stacked against him, he is starting near the bottom of the ladder, and the system is rigged. A sociologist would say he lacks all the important types of capital – economic, cultural, social, symbolic. I try to help him attain all the capital he can. I have to encourage his faith that if he works hard and hones his talents, he can excel. What else could motivate him? Part of me wants to discuss his disadvantage with him, to talk about how our area and our country doesn’t have to be this way, to foster justifiable anger, to encourage agitation for change. But, for now, he wants a good job, and he wants to support his family. 

Hamza is living in Britain in 2018, within a specific form of global political economy. The descendants of the barons who came over to England with William I in 1066 are, in many cases, still very wealthy and powerful here.[2]  Through his whole career, Steve Jobs accumulated a third of the fortune of Liliane Bettencourt, the French heiress.[3] Hamza would need decades to accumulate the capital some of my peers at Cambridge were born with – peers far less talented than Hamza, but who’ve glided through far more gilded lives. The richest 1% in our country own a quarter of the wealth.[4] London’s richest 10% own half its wealth.[5] There’s no evidence that people with higher IQs are more likely to be in these upper percentiles, and many within them are not especially talented.[6]

Workers’ “merit”, on the other hand, can be scrutinised down to each inch of their movement, in some cases, with technology developed to measure their every motion. At worst, workers have devices monitoring them as they service mechanical processes: they are appendages of machines, fitted with machine-appendages to quantify their work. Office gizmos calculate time spent at desks. The ideal meritocracy of the twentieth century imagined full, secure employment – everyone firmly, efficiently slotted into place according to merit. Now, the least fortunate are compelled to exhibit their worth constantly, to avoid being kicked from one precarious employment to another, or to nothing. The archetypal figure of our vastly unequal economy is a social isolate, fending as an atomised individual for themselves; even the rich are insecure and footloose.[7] There’s little alternative to becoming a self-investing unit of human capital,[8] measuring your skills, your health, your time, your wealth, perpetually networking and crafting your brand.

Meritocracy, the idea that effort + intelligence = reward, is one of the most potent political myths characterising the period between 1958 and the present. It’s among the most powerful stories told about how our society works, which obscures and legitimises in equal measure. Though Michael Young wrote of it ambivalently, and to highlight its dangers, it now appears as unquestionable as democracy – and equally manipulable. Meritocracy blends particular, contorted notions of individual freedom, equality and justice, in the context of entrenched hierarchy, inequality, and disadvantage. Attempts to approximate meritocracy result in the partial redistribution of enormous inequality, in a system which generates disparities.

Our situation is contingent. There are other possibilities. The potency of meritocracy as an ideal – which assumes competitiveness, rigorous measurement of worth, scarcity, and a certain form of individualism, as well as inequality and hierarchy – narrows our sense of those possibilities. But history is now taking a significant turn, and nobody is sure in which direction.[9] The future is open. Where will Hamza’s family be in 2081, once the twenty-first century is fully-fledged? What equation will characterise their society? What follows are two sketched possibilities.


2081a: Intelligence + effort = reward? (even less plausibly)

Hamza’s grandchild, Nabir, doesn’t live in London. The city has no place for her. The luxurious CGI visions daubed across construction site hoardings have been realised in bricks and mortar and glass, with the erasure of poorer people they promised. Those who own the automated machinery and computing capacity, and those whose families have always hoarded wealth, own London. And the grip of wealth on power is firm and stubborn.

When the base of England’s economy moved from agriculture to industry and finance through the nineteenth century, the wealthy shifted their focus accordingly,[10] and in the twenty-first century they shifted again.

There is a world-class transport network, which takes Nabir and others like her into the city, so that they can provide services to its gargantuan businesses. On her commute, posters remind Nabir not to get obese or to drink too much, and through the window she can see the new super-prison. She earns enough to keep her going. She lives closer to London than many, and feels grateful for it, particularly given how much of the country is becoming uninhabitable. Her landlord isn’t too unreasonable. She knows she’s lucky to have work, to have benefited from the job creators’ craft.

The descendants of my Cambridge contemporaries dwell in large job-creating offices, their screens a stream of data. Numbers about the money going out and coming in, and numbers about Nabir, among others. Occasionally, her name turns red, just like it did in her school’s database, but fortunately it’s never stayed red long enough to draw the job-creators’ attention. They emphasise that their position is earned, that they provide the jobs everyone relies upon, and that their bonuses and holidays are proportional to the value their work brings. The “have nots” and “have yachts” get their just desserts.

In late-twenty-first century Britain, the most celebrated are those who surge from Nabir’s situation to that of the job creators. Their stories, though few, remind Nabir that it’s possible. The faint hope they encourage stifles her ambiguous rage.[11]

Nabir and her partner would love children, but they can’t afford them. Like her grandfather, Nabir often finds herself crying. She’s never knows if it’s due to toil, or because of how miniscule she feels.


2081b: Intelligence + effort + choice + need = additional reward

Nabir lives in central London with her family, and works as a nurse in a nearby hospital.

Nabir’s best friend Sally is a doctor at the same hospital. Having opted to spend longer training, Sally earns quite a lot more than Nabir, but it doesn’t amount to a qualitatively different life. Nabir sits on the board of the hospital.

Among the others in their friendship group are a banker, a cleaner, a lawyer, and a teaching assistant. The cleaner is an MP.

Much of their work is automated, so they all do 15-30 hour weeks. Time liberates talent and opportunity. Nabir and her partner spend a lot of it with their children, and she also studies public health strategy to aid her work on the board. Her children go to a newly opened school – many new schools are being built, and many prisons closed.

The Citizens’ Income Office is as plush as the nearby bank, because everyone goes there often, and it is held in as high esteem as the NHS. All the owners of shops, cinemas and restaurants try to locate next to the “CIO”. Citizens’ income[12] decommodifies people – they are no longer wholly dependent on selling themselves in the labour market.[13] They are free to be responsible for shaping their lives.

Everyone is aware that there are enough resources in Britain for all to be well fed, clothed, schooled, housed, and cared for,[14] regardless of whatever merit may be perceived in them. Need determines income as much as work. Some political decisions are made by representative citizens’ panels, randomly chosen and thoroughly informed.[15] Power and wealth aren’t close cohabitants, and neither is easy to stockpile.

There’s still a ladder, of sorts, but the rungs are far closer together and easier to traverse, and the rungs at the bottom are in far better condition. Everyone has the sense – however dim, however vague – that they matter.


Neither 2081 is impossible, and I hope that one day soon I can talk to Hamza about them.




[1] Hamza is a pseudonym, and the real “Hamza” has given permission for his story to be used.

[2] Clark, G. & Cummins, N. (2013) ‘Surnames and Social Mobility: 1230-2012’, LSE Department of Economic History Working Papers, 181/2013

[3] Picketty, T. (2017) Chronicles, Harmonsworth: Penguin, pp. 85

[4] Credit Suisse “Global Wealth Databook”, November 2016, available online at: http://publications.credit-suisse.com/tasks/render/file/index.cfm?fileid=AD6F2B43-B17B-345E-E20A1A254A3E24A5#page=147 [accessed 04/09/2018]

[5] https://www.trustforlondon.org.uk/data/topics/inequality/ "[accessed 04/09/2018]"

[6] Dorling, D. (2015) Inequality and the 1%, London: Verso, pp. 46-51. The idea that IQ = intelligence is of course contentious.

[7] Marquand, D. (2015) Mammon’s Kingdom, Harmondsworth: Penguin, pp. 136, 142

[8] Brown, W. (2017) ‘A citadel that stormed itself’, New Humanist, Vol 132, No 4, pp. 33

[9] A recent book by prominent social scientists concludes along these lines: Wallerstein, I., Collins, R., Mann, M. Derluguian, G. & Calhoun, C. (2013) Does Capitalism have a Future?, Oxford: OUP, pp. 192

[10] Ingham, G. (1984) Capitalism Divided, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

[11] Psychological research has shown that tokenistic, random mobility increases the perceived legitimacy of intergroup inequality – Wright, S. (2001) ‘Restricted Intergroup Boundaries: Tokenism, Ambiguity, and the Tolerance of Injustice’, in The Psychology of Legimitacy, J. Jost & B. Major (Eds), Cambridge: CUP, pp. 223-256

[12] There is an expansive and growing literature on Citizens’ Income and Universal Basic Income, and the idea is increasingly popular. See e.g. Standing, G. (2017) Basic Income: And How We Can Make It Happen, London: Pelican

[13] Goring Esping-Anderson refers to welfare systems which “decommodify” people in Esping-Anderson, G. (1990) The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism, Cambridge: Polity

[14] Danny Dorling observes this about the present day, in Dorling, D. (2015) Injustice, London: Policy Press, pp. 2

[15] This borrows from James Fishkin’s ideas of deliberative democracy, as found in e.g. Fiskin, J. (2009) When the People Speak, Oxford: OUP


Luke Billingham

Luke is a youth worker and charity development worker in Hackney and Feltham. In Hackney, he works for Hackney Quest, a long-running youth charity, where he focuses on mentoring, education support, and youth voice projects. In Feltham, he works for Reach Academy, an all-through school, developing a new charity called Reach Children’s Hub, which supports local children, young people and families.

Luke studied Politics, Psychology and Sociology at Cambridge, and has published writing on historical contingency in The Curriculum Journal, for the British Educational Research Association, and on OpenDemocracy.

He is also a trustee and volunteer at Haven Distribution, a charity sending educational books into prisons across the UK.