On privilege and meritocracy (again)

the-american-dreamAnthropologist, writer and intellectual giantess Sarah Kendzior recently published an astute analysis of why those born in the 1970s or later are basically fucked as in a climate of widening inequality, winner takes all.

Although she is referring to the American context, the pattern also applies more generally to the western world. Broadly, she asserts that the baby boomers had it relatively easy and now getting a decent education and job are much more difficult for those of us under forty.

In her words: “In America, education has become a prize for people who have already won. Those with money, connections, and access to technology travel a path that starts with private preschools, continues through SAT tutors and exorbitant enrichment activities, and culminates in college that costs more than the national median income.”

She points out that the notion of the United States being a meritocracy is no longer valid. Back in the day when the boomers were coming of age, a good, affordable education was more accessible and decent jobs more plentiful. However, now  the springboard into a solid middle class existence comes with a much heftier price tag. According to Kendzior, “The fate of the next generation…relies on how heavily parents are able to invest in the expensive credentials now required to purchase a professional future.”

She terms this an “entrenched meritocracy” – “one structured on what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called ‘the social alchemy that turns class privilege into merit.’ In an entrenched meritocracy, advantages conferred by birth are marketed as achievements, but these achievements – a good education, a prestigious-but-unpaid or low-paying entry-level job – are only possible for those who have the means to afford them. The cycle repeats itself, with a wealthy and educated elite conferring their own advantages onto their children.”

Kendzior goes on to assert that, “opportunity hoarding has become the pastime of the elite, with education used as a proxy for rejection based on ‘merit,’ and ‘merit’ redefined as how many prestigious accolades one is able to purchase to gain access to education. This process begins at birth, where quality of school is determined by parental income bracket, but is shown most clearly in higher education, where the cost of tuition increased 1120 percent between 1982 and 2012.”

So where does this leave us? It’s clear that Gen Y and millennials, the offspring of the baby boomers are struggling. They struggle with paying for education, housing, finding suitable and well-paying work. While some of it is their own fault (let’s face it, they can be a bit entitled and narcissistic), economic immobility is spreading like a disease, education becoming more and more for the elite, like back in the old days, leaving a very uncertain future indeed. If things continue as they are, it will only get worse, and slowly but surely, the American dream is turning into a nightmare.

“The most interesting safe country” An Afternoon with The Economist’s Daniel Tudor

TudorToday I attended 10 Magazine’s Book Club which featured an afternoon of Q&A with The Economist’s Korea correspondent Daniel Tudor. He has just written a book called Korea: The Impossible Country. I admit to not having read the book, but I was interested in what he had to say about the country and his experience here. Listening to him, I was validated in many of my own insights, opinions and experiences. We both like being here because of the warmth of the Korean people, and also because it is a dynamic and fascinating country that is continually changing (in his words, “the most interesting safe country”). Here I will summarize some of his most astute observations and opinions.

The Korean Wave: It was inevitable as other developed Asian countries have had their time in the limelight, but now it’s time to move on…

Working in a Korean Company: They are very hierarchical, aged-based and working in one made him feel like a little boy. As a white foreigner with a degree from Oxford, he felt that people were either too nice to him or unnecessarily obnoxious. He talked about the resentment of the other workers who had to stay until 11pm with nothing much to do while he went home at 7pm because he didn’t see a future there for him.

Compulsory Military Service: It is a kind of socialisation and prepares young men for the hierarchicalism that they will experience in company life and gets them used to being ordered around. It is also a very important bonding experience for the men who often stay in touch throughout their lives.

Freedom of Press: As a member of the foreign press, he has a lot of freedom but laments that national newspapers cannot overtly criticize large companies because 10-20% of the papers’ advertising budget comes from them. However, because the mainstream press is muzzled, people can go to the outskirts and express their views in smaller, online forums.

The Issue of North Korea: He believes that the country is essentially capitalist at its roots and also at the top, but the latter is riddled with corruption. He would like to see more foreign businesses operating in North Korea and raising the standard of living for its citizens. He is concerned that North Korea is being seen as increasingly foreign by the younger generation and that there is an apathy among many Koreans towards reunification.

Women’s Roles: He stated that it would be good for the economy for women to go back into the workforce after raising children and also that if they had a job outside of raising children, they wouldn’t be obsessed with ‘keeping up with the Kims’ in terms of pressuring their children to succeed and compete. They could break out of the Tiger Mum role.

The Economy: There won’t be another Asian Tiger phenomenon. Korea can’t compete with China and so should focus on competing with Switzerland and Germany. He predicts that unless some very savvy investing occurs, the national pension office will be empty by 2040.

Society: Korea has a certain open-mindedness and the ability to self-correct as it evolves, unlike Japan which, although aware of its social and economic problems, remains in denial, stagnant and doesn’t strive to change. Korea should now focus on fostering a wider definition of success and celebrate those interested in creative pursuits as well as entrepreneurs.