Make Money First: The Trouble With Meritocracies

For a while now, I’ve been trying to put together a post about the value of polymaths in modern society. 200 or even 100 years ago, such people would need no defenders. What could be more valuable or intrinsically rewarding than being interested in everything and interesting to others? Yet today, polymaths are often seen as dilettantes, unable to focus enough to be serious about something and get a job. There is work, and then there are hobbies, and one should learn to tell the difference and divide one’s life into segments. Few careers reward diversity of knowledge. Fewer still pay well. My tentative title was going to be, “Great Careers for Polymaths,” but the idea made me queasy. Why, I asked myself, do I need to justify having multiple interests with the language of making money?

Because, I realized, we value wealth first. What I mean by “first” is that the goal is to be “secure” financially before seeking career satisfaction, getting in shape or getting married. Wealth is the elusive gateway to a complete life, but many mistake it for a complete life in and of itself.

What ‘Wealth First’ Means for The Rest of Us

This is why social history is discounted – it’s seen as a dithering sideline away from profitable history (i.e. the Hitler Channel and biographies of Alexander the Great). Soft and fuzzy things like postcolonialism don’t matter – they can’t be quantified, or easily described, and they never had the same impact on history as specific military battles or elections anyway, right? And besides, universities will always want to hire graduates who can wax on about the Vietnam War or Napoleon. Subaltern studies? Not so much.

It’s why history in general (and English, and Music, and anything that doesn’t immediately translate into full-time employment) is derided as useless by those who deal in tangible goods and services.  If you doubt the truth of this statement, read a few of the comments that were lobbed at a history professor silly enough to suggest in the Atlantic last week that taking a humanities degree might not be a terribly impractical career decision.

It’s why nobody values HR as a profession, unless they are highly enlightened business managers. An article I read yesterday talked about why HR departments have no influence: they make no revenue. Very few companies can see the benefit of diversity, engagement, and career development in their employees, so they take from their HR professionals the most basic services of hiring and firing and treat their HR departments as transactional lackeys with no strategic opinion worth paying attention to. I have personally witnessed this phenomenon often when, after my colleagues spend 30 minutes outlining how managers can make their employees happier and more productive, the business managers give them the facial equivalent of, “I’m sorry, did you say something? I was too busy thinking about my P&L. Who are you again?”

People are really only interested in information, the majority of the time, insofar as it will help them to make money.  Case in point: my blog readership on a day when I post something that has currency in the business world (i.e. Gen Y or advertising) is easily triple that of days I post about anything else (especially Victorian masculinity or imagined cities, alas).

Measuring Up to Our (Economic) Potential…Or Not

Certainly, this post is not intended to be an impassioned plea for higher regard for HR, or for more humanities majors. The problem runs deeper than that. By valuing wealth first, we lower the value of all other means of fulfilment.

I have written before about the concept of the silent referent, that is, the idea that there are things we must all be familiar with, even if we wish to disagree with them. Postcolonial historians give the example of colonial nationals needing to be familiar with the Western tradition in order to oppose it, including the complete Western literary canon, Judeo-Christian mores, and Western history. The Western tradition was the silent referent for them.

For us, I suspect the silent referent is the benefit of wealth. Wealth is indicative of success, of having proven one’s worth, and as such, those who are less wealthy (by chance or design) are discounted.

In real life, this idea looks like this: if you have the ability to do both, we often say, best major in accounting instead of music at university because you’ll make more money. If you want to run a company, better to spend some time in the revenue-producing divisions than in HR – in fact, I am aware of exactly one company that requires a stint in HR, and hundreds that require time spent in the revenue-producing arm, in order to be a senior executive. (And, of course, they get paid better too.) And if you absolutely have to throw your life away by getting a Ph.D. in History, please, please don’t focus on that postcolonial stuff, don’t ever plan to be employed, and certainly don’t expect your degree to pay for itself.

Ouch. It’s almost enough to make impressionable high school seniors apply to engineering or commerce instead of arts programs in university just to prove they can — in order to say, with personal conviction, that despite the shower of money and general respect given to B.Eng. and B.Comm. grads, arts programs make you more well-rounded, creative and interesting. (And teach you more useful overall life skills – not least, of course, the ability to impress everyone with wide-ranging Jeopardy! clue knowledge.)  Of course life skills can’t be quantified, except in terms of starting salary, and so engineers and economists win out here by default.

The Trouble with Meritocracies

Why is wealth the first definition of success? I suspect the idea can be traced to the rise of meritocratic societies. When places in society were not up for negotiation – and that includes most of the history we are aware of – wealth factored little into how people conceived of their worth. Landed gentlemen measured their intrinsic value in terms of their honour or their knowledge of the world, gentlewomen in their ability to play piano or live a good and godly life. (True, they also measured their worth in things like skill at needlepoint and the ability to shoot small animals.) Similarly, peasants looked to stoutness of character and day-to-day interpersonal relations to define their worth. But the rise of meritocratic societies inextricably linked the elusive concept of “life success” with moving up the ranks, with being able to do as one chooses, and more than anything with being independently wealthy.

Lest anyone accuse me of being nostalgic here, I will concede that, certainly, we value fulfilment and strength of character and good needlepoint skills today as well. But we value them after we have valued money. We spend 10 hours a day working jobs we don’t love and then go home to continue on our Blackberrys. We compromise and work at Starbucks or an insurance company because there are few other options, because the bottom line is that society isn’t set up to value polymaths. Capitalism values efficiency over fulfilment, and people value stability, which is why most of us are cogs in corporate machines.

Now let me add another dimension: the majority of HR employees, social historians, and humanities majors in general are women. The majority of investment bankers, political historians, and engineers are men. Why? Are women less willing to compromise? Or do the things that make money just not appeal to women’s interests and strengths? I’m reaching way, way back to the subject of one of my first posts here, on the value we place on typically “male” vs. “female” work, and finding that I still don’t have an answer about why women make less money. (I take comfort in the fact that the Globe & Mail doesn’t either, and they’ve spilled a lot of ink on the subject recently.)

I doubt society will change rapidly. Maybe we’ll have more success changing what we value. One benefit of the current economic downturn is that it has introduced some equality in that everyone is less wealthy than they were or would like to be. Perhaps it will highlight the importance of happiness or fulfillment or completeness first, over the capricious “success” of material wealth.

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3 Responses to Make Money First: The Trouble With Meritocracies

  1. Kathryn Exon Smith says:

    Disclaimer: for the record, I don’t hate commerce majors, or engineers (I did, after all, marry one). I only want for people to do things because they love them. If you love the four Ps and advanced calculus problem sets, right on.

  2. David says:

    Great post!
    I often mention to people that the term “Liberal Studies” used to be explicitly opposed to “Servile Studies”…always nice to remind the various Science and Business departments in a University that their educational outcomes fall under the collective umbrella of servility.

    PS: is P&L a euphemism?

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