I don't think anyone really wants to live in a true meritocracy

I was thinking about something the other day.

When I was in high school orchestra, at any time someone could challenge you for your seat. So if you were the first chair of your section, the second chair could unseat you if they believed they were a stronger musician. All they had to do is inform the teacher, who would then make the challenger and challengee play a few bars of whatever piece we were working on. If the challenger played better, they would get the seat. If not, they had to deal with the embarrassment of writing a check they couldn’t cash in front of the whole orchestra.

I think I only witnessed one or two “challenges” my entire time in high school even though the seating arrangements were always a source of tension and butthurt. Obviously, the high pressure of performing in front of one’s peers must have deterred most would-be usurpers.

But I think there’s another explanation. I think we had all subconsciously come to the realization that meritocracy (“the better player always gets the better seat”) comes with a major tradeoff. You not only always have to be the best, but you must always be ready to be tested and perform the best. It’s not enough that you killed it at the chair audition back in September. No, you have to kill it all the time, on every piece, even when you’re stressed out over your parents’ divorce and geometry exam. Otherwise, your ass might just be ending the year sitting in the back of the section. Ain’t nobody got time to be worried about being challenged at every turn. It’s just far more easier to cope with the unfairness of the system. There’s always next year, after all.

Perhaps the reason I’ve been thinking about this is because we have a couple of “old timers” in my workplace who aren’t really performing very well. It could be that they used to perform well back in the prime of their career, but now they are clearly “air bowing” their parts (to draw an orchestra analogy.) And the butthurt among younger staff seems to grow everyday. Myself included, truth be told. It is hard not to feel some kind of way. You want to think that the good work that you do will come with financial rewards, but then you see people who barely accomplish the bare minimum pull in a higher salary. The system seems like it’s rigged somehow.

But maybe my colleagues and I need to be careful what we wish for? I’m thinking we do. Because maybe we would hate working in an environment where we constantly had to prove our value. I know I would hate working at a place like that. And though it is easy to think I would retire before I let myself become a topic of whispered conversation in the breakroom, maybe I won’t know when I’ve reached that point. And I’ve spent my whole career trying to be “excellent” and to go above and beyond expectations. Maybe when I get older, I will feel like I have earned the privilege to only care about the bare minimum and not be such a goody-goody.

I’m curious if anyone else has thought about the downsides of meritocracy. Do you think the downsides of a true meritocracy are no worse than the downsides of the system we have now? Or do you think they are worse?

How do you know they are pulling in a higher salary? Why would the work ethic of others affect how you work?

Because our salaries are public information. They are published every year in the local rag via an online database.

I said I felt some kind of way. I didn’t say I let it affect my behavior.

A local rag publishes the fact that “monstro makes $xx” a year? That’s strange.

Fair enough. Why are your feelings affected by what other people make? Why do you even think about it?

Well, that’s the public sector for you.

I’m not answering these derpy questions.

Well, you could go into sales where your salary is directly tied to your performance, and anyone who tries to coast is ruthlessly culled.

Or, you could take comfort in the fact that the old-timers are finally receiving their financial rewards for all the good work they did over the course of their careers. And maybe what you consider “air bowing” is due to the fact that they perform so efficiently that they make it look easy.

Our local rag (a major metropolitan newspaper) links to the state database which has the name, job classification, and salary of every public employee. I was shocked to find out I made more than my grade school buddy, who had a law degree and was at the highest pay grade in his job classification.

That seems like a violation of PII laws. They actually publish people’s names and their salary?

They are not derpy questions. You and your younger colleagues seem irritated (at least) by what other people are making compared to their job performance. I’m curious why that is.

Federal salaries have been public information since the 19th century. In California it has been law for all government salaries since a 2007 CA Supreme Court case decided that they were discoverable if requested under the California Public Records Act, which was first enacted in 1968.

So yes, in CA for example you can search by name for the salaries of millions of people in not just state government, but also county, city and municipal government, public universities, public schools, etc. + every retiree drawing a pension from those systems. Anything having a connection to government of any sort in the state.

They ARE totally derpy questions.

I’m curious why you lack the imagination/cognitive ability to puzzle this out yourself. It seems pretty basic to me why someone would be miffed to find out that a coworker makes, say, 50% more than they do even though when they only work half as much.

You have kids, IIRC. If you told your kids you would reward them for getting a good report cards and you gave one kid a trip to Disney World for making straight Bs and gave the other one a bucket of fish heads for making straight As, would you not expect some butthurt to ensue?

What metrics where you work are used to determine value?

The people who pay those salaries have a right to know what their money is being used for.

Do you seriously not understand that transparency in government is a good thing?

Does it matter? The thread isn’t really about Monstro’s workplace situation, it was just a an example and what got her thinking about the issue. The question is whether a totally merit-based society that is under constant test is really workable without turning into a exhausting competitive race.

Personally I think there is some merit to seniority-based systems. I do believe that 30 years of service( or whatever )have a value of its own that should be acknowledged. But beyond that and aside from the tension of constantly having to prove oneself, purely merit-based systems are more prone to corruption IMHO. That’s why unions typically prefer seniority - it is at least a clear, difficult to fudge line. It potentially reduce incidences of unfair favoritism in instances where what is superior performance becomes vague and subjective. “Sure I gave my neighbor and BBQ buddy that promotion, but I honestly believe his performance was better than yours based on this completely subjective and difficult to clearly establish bias assessment, notwithstanding that 85% of the department thinks it is weasley bullshit.”

Seniority does have plenty of drawbacks, but I’m not sure it is worse than merit-based systems. Just different strengths and flaws.

Besides, keeping salaries secret benefits management, not workers.

It has been argued that transparency in ALL salaries is a good thing, to flush out and eliminate hidden discrimination in private compensation. There are movements afoot to increase pay transparency generally, not just for government jobs.

It’s a totally valid question. Any time comparisons are made we need to understand the metrics used to make those comparisons. That’s a fundamental concept of inquiry.

In fact, it seems to me that the underlying issue of monstro’s points about meritocracy could essentially arise from inevitably problematic metrics.

The problem with meritocracy is that the “ocrats” who’ve made it tend then to redefine “merit” in their own favour, an age-old human failing known as “I’m all right, Jack, pull the ladder up”.

That much was the whole point of the book originally defining the term.

And it’s sort of reflected in the career of the author’s son, but that’s a different and rather parochial story.

Meritocracy and a state of constant challenge/conflict are two different things. A situation where if there’s an opening it goes to the best candidate is a meritocracy; one where the person approving vacation time changes every time a different member of the team comes up with the solution to a problem is a bloody mess. And it is perfectly possible to have teams where different parts are led by different people: the person who happens to be best at that task (if efficiency is what is required) or who needs more practice at it (if the situation allows for some temporary inefficiency in order to pursue a better-trained, long-term more efficient team). “Who’s in charge” is not necessarily an all-or-nothing proposition.

Meritocracy is nonsense because there is no good or fair way of establishing merit.
You might think that music ability would be fairly easy to compare, as in monstro’s example. But we know that when they started putting a curtain between the person auditioning for an orchestra and the judges, women started getting more seats. I’m sure that before this the raters thought they were judging purely on merit. They weren’t.

I’ve sat in on many performance review meetings. How do you compare the merit of a computer scientist and a chemist. How do you compare the merit of anyone and the guy who is responsible for the deadly poisonous chemicals that could kill us all?
Even if you could magically determine merit, you can’t pay that way. There usually isn’t enough money to move people’s pay to what they deserve for a year without not just giving zero raises to others but taking money from them - a fate which they probably don’t deserve.
That’s the reality. Merit is usually seen as a perfect unbiased measure by those who have rigged the system to give themselves big pay justified by obviously high merit.

A sense of fairness is not only a human trait, it has been measured in animals.
Before I retired my company stopped giving most people raises, which was okay during the recession but not afterwards. We were on flex time, and people who usually came early and stayed late started coming late and leaving early. And the idiots in HR wondered why.

The military is a meritocracy.
The system works pretty well for them.

One of the criteria for advancement in the military is seniority, time in grade and sometimes time in service is also factored. In the Army, there is a points based system, awards, education, level of education, training etc. Everything is worth some number of points, including passing the promotion board you have to interview with to move up. The promotion board is there to assess things difficult or impossible to quantify in points. How does a soldier present, how much of that training or education did they actually retain? How’s their grasp of current events? Are they members of any organizations such the Order of St. Barbara, do they regularly donate to any charities or volunteer in the local community? Are they ready and worthy if promotion? If you don’t pass the board, it doesn’t matter how great you are at your job, you can’t be promoted. The board is comprised of senior ncos for enlisted, I think officers up to s certain rank also have promotion boards and Generals are approved by congress (how’s that for a promotion board). There are always politics involved. You want a promotion from Sergeant to Staff Sergeant but you and your 1st Sgt or Battalion or Brigade Sergeant Major don’t get along well? You might not get the nod. It’s not really much different than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. Just a system to quantify the value of a lot of the stuff considered for advancement that many places don’t have or seem to need.

Somebody mentioned efficiency based on experience. They know the job well enough to make it look easy. I’ve been there before and am starting to approach that point in my current job. Plus seniority gives me some other responsibilities that often take me away from “doing the work” yet are 100% vital and neccessary if my company and I want to get paid. The newer (younger less experienced generally) people that work under me sometimes complain that us senior folks spend too much time walking around with a clipboard and talking to the customer. I don’t even keep track any more of how many times I’ve had to check someone’s attitude and explain that my job duties include things theirs doesn’t.

So, I’m kinda curious, why are you worried about what the old guys are doing, and if it bothers you that much, go ask them about it, maybe you will learn something that will help you get ahead a little.