Michael Young was an inconvenient child. His father, an Australian, was a musician and music critic, and his mother, who grew up in Ireland, was a painter of a bohemian bent. They were hard-up, distractible, and frequently on the outs with each other; Michael, born in 1915 in Manchester, soon found that neither had much time for him. Once when his parents had seemingly forgotten his birthday, he imagined that he was in for a big end-of-day surprise. But no, they really had forgotten his birthday, which was no surprise at all. He overheard his parents talk about putting him up for adoption and, by his own account, never fully shed his fear of abandonment.
Everything changed for him when, at the age of fourteen, he was sent to an experimental boarding school at Dartington Hall in Devon. It was the creation of the great progressive philanthropists Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, and it sought to change society by changing souls. There it was as if he had been put up for adoption, because the Elmhirsts treated him as a son, encouraging and supporting him for the rest of their lives. Suddenly he was a member of the transnational elite: dining with President Roosevelt, listening in on a conversation between Leonard and Henry Ford.
Young, who has been called the greatest practical sociologist of the past century, pioneered the modern scientific exploration of the social lives of the English working class. He didn’t just aim to study class, though; he aimed to ameliorate the damage he believed it could do. The Dartington ideal was about the cultivation of personality and aptitudes whatever form they took, and the British class structure plainly impeded this ideal. What would supplant the old, caste-like system of social hierarchy? For many today, the answer is “meritocracy”—a term that Young himself coined sixty years ago. Meritocracy represents a vision in which power and privilege would be allocated by individual merit, not by social origins.
Inspired by the meritocratic ideal, many people these days are committed to a view of how the hierarchies of money and status in our world should be organized. We think that jobs should go not to people who have connections or pedigree but to those best qualified for them, regardless of their background. Occasionally, we’ll allow for exceptions—for positive discrimination, say, to help undo the effects of previous discrimination. But such exceptions are provisional: when the bigotries of sex, race, class, and caste are gone, the exceptions will cease to be warranted. We’ve rejected the old class society. In moving toward the meritocratic ideal, we have imagined that we have retired the old encrustations of inherited hierarchies. As Michael Young knew, that’s not the real story.
Young hated the term “welfare state”—he said that it smelled of carbolic—but before he turned thirty he’d…
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