Renewing the Dignity of Work: A Review of the Tyranny of Merit

Featured

In the book The Tyranny of Merit, the renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel sets out to explore the origins of the recent populist sentiment in Western democracies.

How can we explain the public distrust in social, economic and social institutions that we see in the West?

 Both Brexit and the recent presidential elections in the United States point towards the fact that many people no longer believe the stories about upward mobility and economic success that are continually reinforced in popular culture. It is clear that trust in the credibility of many of our institutions, experts and decision makers has been eroding.

The Problem: How Did We Get Here?

Sandel’s diagnosis of these issues stem from our unwavering support in the meritocratic system that governs our society. The belief that individuals, regardless of the social standing in which they are born, can rise as far as their talents can take them. A validation of the ‘rags to riches’ stories that are well known in our public consciousness.

As inequalities of wealth and income rise in many developed countries, and social mobility stagnates, we begin to see the dark side of this meritocratic ideal. It entrenches and justifies the pride of the ‘winners’ while solidifying the guilt and shame of the least well off. Moreover, those who achieve success tend to see their lot as a direct result of their own doing. It emboldens them with a sense of meritocratic hubris, which can lead them to look down those who have less social standing.

The meritocratic logic is that everyone deserves what they get.

You may object that people’s social standing and wealth is justified because our society permits upward mobility and rewards hard work. Where one ends up is ultimately their responsibility.

Of course, there is truth to that statement. However, Sandel recognizes the impediments people face when aiming to move up the social ladder. Namely, those who have existing wealth and power often mold the system in their favor. This occurs most explicitly when those with the means to do so can buy their kids way into elite colleges. We saw this with the college admissions cheating scandal. Moreover, having access to the right connections, social and community support, and better schooling gives some individuals an inherent advantage over others.

Irrespective of how well our societies enable enable upward mobility, Sandel’s main thesis is to question the ideal of meritocracy in and of itself.

Let’s look at two problems he identifies.

1.The Role of Luck

 While our hard work and ambition play a role in our success, we can’t ignore the arbitrariness of several key elements that are out of our control. We don’t choose whether we are born into a wealthy or poor family, our family upbringing or genetics. Random life events sometimes can either provide us with good fortune or derail our long-sought after plans.

Grit and determination do matter. However, isn’t it also true that one can work tirelessly long hours and not see the lucky break that they deserve?

In addition, we can’t claim credit for the particular talents society values. The book looks at the case of Lebron James. As a super basketball player living in a society that rewards the game of basketball, he is generously rewarded for his talents ($42 million/year to be exact). But, if Lebron was born in Renaissance Florence, a period of time which valued artists, sculptors and fresco paintings, his talents as an elite basketball player wouldn’t pay off financially.

2. A Question of Value(s)  

Economists will claim that the most efficient way to financially reward individuals is to allocate their income in a way that aligns with the supply and demand of the market. However, efficient outcomes are not necessarily ethical or just. They don’t always align with our values and morals.

The hit TV show Breaking Bad looks at the story of Walter White. It assesses his transformation from a modest earning high school teacher to a high-income narcotics dealer. Although the market rewards him for being a drug dealer, we wouldn’t say that this profession creates more value to society than that of a high school teacher.

His new job as a drug dealer in fact leaves people worse off through addictions and damage to the health of others. The point is the market makes no ethical judgements- it is morally neutral. It doesn’t tell us what contributes to the common good.

A recent example to highlight this idea is the discrepancy between market rewards and morals is in the 2008 financial crisis. Many financiers profited off the vulnerability of others by knowingly selling risky investments. The speculation bubble popped, leaving the average person to loose a lot of money while enriching the bankers through the ‘too big to fail’ bailouts.

Contributive Justice and the Common Good

To be clear Sandel is not advocating to a return to earlier forms of social organization. What he is ultimately attempting to do is to get us to rethink success and the contributions our work provides to common good.

He is trying to restore the dignity of work.

He makes it clear that every job, especially those ‘low-skill’ workers that we look down upon, is fulfilling the essential needs of society. This sentiment is nicely summed up by Martin Luther King Jr.,

One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant

The book goes beyond mere technocratic policy solutions. Sandel wants to begin a dialogue about how we can restore social solidarity and community by respecting the significance that others provide our society through their work.

He wants to question the assumption that ‘value’ is confined to economics, arguing that it should be something the public sphere should weigh in on.

Final Thoughts

I remember my first essay in university was a reflection on Winston Churchill’s famous quote “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

I feel the same way about meritocracy. Sandel exposes the issues with it as an ideal and as it plays out in the real world. However, it is not clear what would be a better organizing system for society.

In the final analysis, whether you agree with the book’s critiques, it provides a good starting point for us to think more critically about the dignity of work. Work is not only a means for us to earn a living, but something that provides us with self-esteem, a sense of worth and social recognition.

In the age of the pandemic, perhaps we all can start appreciating how valuable those ‘essential workers’ really are.

Work, at its best, is a socially integrating activity, an arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit

Featured Image Source: Pexels Free Photos

Redefining Success: Beyond Your Job Title

Featured

In the modern world, our job titles tend to be the centerpiece of our identities. When you meet someone new at a social gathering, the first piece of information that they will likely disclose to the question ‘what do you do?’ is the details of your chosen profession.

Your answer to this question will dictate how you will be perceived by others.

If you tell your new acquaintance that you have a senior or executive level position at a high performing business, you will be met with praise and admiration. You are someone who went to elite universities, wears trendy suits, sleeps in posh hotels and works late hours – the epitome of a success story. People will flock towards you with great interest and enthusiasm. You are seen to have high status, and in their eyes, your efforts should be celebrated.

On the other hand, if you tell this new acquaintance that you are a blue-collar worker in a low to medium paying career, getting dirty and working with your hands, chances are that you’ll be met with disinterested emotionless faces. People may be much less enthusiastic to learn about the specifics and nuances of your life.

Leonardo Dicaprio from the The Wolf of Wall Street

What I want to explore in this article is to assess why we place so much of our self-worth on a single piece of information – our job titles. Yes, I agree that ‘making it to the top’ of the career ladder is a great achievement. Work can also provide a sense of price and source of meaning.

However, I think that our careers should not subsume one’s whole identity.

What about one’s hobbies, intellectual pursuits or more importantly one’s character. There surely matter – don’t they?

You Are Not Your Job

Objectification is when our humanity and uniqueness is reduced down to a single characteristic or trait. In a hyper-efficient productivity driven society, the complexity of intricacies of our individuality can often be limited to our role in the economic system. This can happen on both sides of the employment relationship. Namely, when someone views an employer or employee as an instrument or tool to achieve their desired economic objectives.

The issue with this type of mindset is that it can lead to stress, burnout and a dissatisfaction in life. We become confined to a singular identity. Friendships or familial relationships are neglected as we become constricted by our work.

We try to distract ourselves from an existential void that cannot be filled by possessions or materialist notions of success.

Status Anxiety

It is human nature to constantly compare ourselves to others. The advent of digital technologies have given us many more ways to judge ourselves against our peers. Browsing our smartphones, we may get envious of the seemingly perfect lives that our friends from high school have crafted. Our self-worth and self-esteem take a hit when we come to the belief that they are higher on the imaginary ladder of success than we are.

The philosopher Alain de Botton coined the term Status Anxiety to describe the fear of being labelled as ‘unsuccessful’ by others or looked down upon. He claims that those who don’t attain our societies conception of success are anxious with the fear that they’ll be judged by others with a lack of dignity or respect. They see themselves as failures who’ve lost in the competitive game of the free market.

But why conform to the expectations of others.

Why not craft your own path?

Our minds are susceptible to the influence of external voices telling us what we require to be satisfied, voices that may drown out the faint sounds emitted by our souls and distract us from the careful, arduous task of accurately naming our priorities.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

Redefining Success

There are at least two problems with modern society’s proclivity towards defining success in merely economic terms.

The first is that it negatively impacts one’s physical and mental health. If one finds meaning and purpose only through work, they are then inclined to work unreasonably long hours and make unrealistic sacrifices for their jobs. In a strange reversal of ideals, working late hours and ‘burning the midnight oil to the point of exhaustion’ has become to be seen as a badge of honour. Busyness is now a status symbol, something that high achievers and self-help gurus boast about on their social media accounts. While this may seem honourable, we all have productivity thresholds. That is, there will come a point when working more hours will lead to less productivity. You will make more mistakes. Remember we are humans, not machines.

The second issue with the mainstream view of status and accomplishment is that it restricts the freedom of the individual. People should have the autonomy to define what success means for them. Rather than merely accepting the social expectations placed on you by others, we can always make the decision about what goals, values and ambitions we would like to achieve.

Perhaps what is most important to us is our religious or spiritual practice, family life, a passion project or our work dedicated to a social cause that we deeply care about. The point is that there are many paths towards contentment. You have to find what resonates with you.

Breaking Free

You are not your job. You’re not how much much you have in your bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet.

 Chuck Palahniuk , Fight Club

External things don’t define a person. Most likely, you won’t be remembered by your relative status compared to others or the contents of your CV. In the final analysis, your relationships and how you treat others will likely take precedence over your career.

People will come to judge you by your actions, character and virtues. That is, who you are as a human being.  


Interview with Mindfulness Teacher Paula Vital: Getting in the Right Relationship with Work

To help us navigate the increasingly blurred lines between work and home life, I interviewed mindfulness teacher Paula Vital to provide her insights and advice on how to regain a greater sense of balance and perspective.

1. How would you define a healthy work/life balance?

I prefer using the term ‘balance in life.’ Life balance is about being clear on what you would like to achieve with your life. It is about acknowledging your priorities and organizing your time in a way that helps you work towards those goals.

Spending a lot of time at work can become unproductive and unhealthy when it becomes an unconscious choice.

The key is to be aware of your intentions and establish the right balance for yourself when it comes to different aspects of your work and home life.

2. In the age of remote work it is difficult to establish concrete boundaries between work and home life. What is some advice you can offer to help us disconnect from our work, and how can we prevent overwork or burnout?

It is important to be transparent and ensure that there are clear boundaries within your organization. In a hyper connected world, the ability to disconnect is important to maintain one’s mental and physical health.

Government or workplace policy can assist in making the line between work and home life clearer. An example of this is recent legislation in Ontario, Canada which requires employers to develop policies and expectations for employees to disconnect from e-mails and calls outside of regular work hours.  

Openness and clear communication are also significant when letting your employer know about your physical and mental health boundaries.

It can sometimes be seen as a badge of honour to work long hours late into the night, and shame can set in for those who don’t fulfill these societal expectations. However, research indicates that this has a negative effect on both productivity and on the quality of your work.

Time to recharge is therefore not only beneficial for our mental health but also benefits our organization.

3. In the modern age, it is so easy to get caught up with never ending to-do lists. We are always busy and on the go. How can we reclaim meaningful leisure time? What leisure activities do you engage in to help recuperate from work?

We need to alternate between states where we are ‘goal or task oriented’ and states of spontaneity or ‘flow’.

Leisure that is rejuvenating and refreshing for me involves pursuing activities which allow me to cultivate a degree of presence and embodiment. It is being grounded in the present moment and doing things not because I care about the outcome per say, but rather for the sake of themselves.

A way to break through the mindset of productivity and efficiency is to practice spontaneous movement and non-linear movement.

Sometimes our best thoughts and ideas come when we least expect it.

4. How does mindfulness and contemplative practice, or more generally the time you spend outside of work, fit into your idea of the ‘good life’?

It is often thought that we have to achieve a certain goal or milestone in life to be happy. However, we seldom realize that happiness and contentment is available to us in each and every moment. Being mindful and present can turn any seemingly mundane task, such as washing dishes, into an act of joy.

Our desires for fame, status and fortune often reveal a deeper yearning for affection, love and recognition. As the acclaimed actor Jim Carey said,

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.

We should always ask, how are we defining ourselves?

If we step back and look at the earth, we can see how we are all closely interconnected to other humans as well as to nature in general. This perspective can inspire us to feel connected to something greater than ourselves and motivate us towards a life of service.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

You can view a previous interview with Paula on mindfulness here: A Mindful Approach to Uncertainty: An Interview with Mindfulness Teacher Paula Vital – A Life of Virtue: Philosophy as a Way of Life

To learn more about her work through her free course of 3 Minute Meditations: 3 Minutes to Your Greatest Self check out her website www.livethepresent.ca.


Image Source : Pexels Free Photos