[lbo-talk] Meritocratic Individualism

Culture Lab info at pulpculture.org
Sun Oct 2 12:47:52 PDT 2005

Meritocratic Individualism

Every manager struggled with the tension between structural and individualist messages offered by the counselors at Transitions, Inc. Ultimately, they resolved the tension in favor of individualistic explanations and placed the blame for their plight squarely on themselves. In Falling from Grace, Katherine Newman argues that this propensity to gravitate toward individualistic explanations can be attributed to the ethos of meritocratic individualism.

According to this ethos, success does not derive from luck or even education; rather, success is the result of hard work and well-honed talent. The business world is driven by this ethos. It is a world in which one maxim reigns: the individual is entirely responsible for success and, likewise, for his or her failure. Individuals, corporations, and society in general come to be viewed in terms of meritocratic individualism which glorifies competition and "transforms the pursuit of wealth...into a socially responsible and hence morally admirable attitude." Meritorious individuals work hard, invest in education, develop skills, and defer gratification in order to reap greater financial rewards in the long-term. Likewise, successful corporations relentlessly pursue profit through efficiency, investment in technology, and prudent capital investment. Society, in turn, encourages these activities on the part of individuals and firms because such strategies ultimately lead to an increase in the availability of affordable consumer goods.

The experience of downsizing challenges meritocratic individualism. Managers experience a 'fall from grace,' but they are acutely aware that it is not one of their own making. They are forced to accept an alternate explanation for their plight, "categorical fate." Unemployed managers must learn to explain their situation in terms of larger socio-economic forces that are beyond their control. They attribute their "misfortune" to "membership in a group...that is as a whole subject to victimization."

They recognize, for example, that middle managers have been identified as dysfunctional in a competitive global economy. They learn that the high salaries they commanded as experienced managers make them vulnerable to the current vogue of slash and burn lay offs of well-paid mangers who are subsequently replaced by lower paid, newly-degreed MBAs. And, they are increasingly aware that middle managers are being rendered obsolete by a computer revolution that makes it possible to transmit information from Milan to Manhattan with the click of a mouse.

Given their ability to locate their own experiences in terms of larger structural explanations for their fate, one would think managers would easily reject the idea that downsizing is the result of personal failure and maybe even wonder if the problems they face might be addressed at the level of public policy. The men and women in this study, however, were unable to sustain structural explanations of their plight.

When they appealed to explanations of categorical fate during interviews, they maintained that changes in the workplace could not be identified as good or bad; they just were. The cycle of downsizing and managerial unemployment is like the weather and impervious to human intervention. Instead of elaborating on the structural explanations for their fate, instead of seeing these as public problems, unemployed managers and professionals blamed themselves. They saw themselves as having become resistant to change, parasites clinging to an older managerial ethos that rewarded loyalty and protected seniority.

Their response is not particularly surprising, for these men and women had become successful managers and to do so required that they vigorously uphold meritocratic individualism:

"The ease with which potentially comforting explanations...for individual fate can be undermined helps to explain why displaced managers oscillate back and forth between seeing themselves as victims of forces larger than themselves and blaming themselves for expulsion from the world of the successful. They are not in rebellion against the business culture in which they have been nurtured. On the contrary, they are its true believers.... Because they have been steeped in the tenets of the managerial world view, they cannot avoid its condemnation of their character or conduct. They prosecute themselves on its behalf, turning criticism against themselves and against one another: victims blaming victims."

Transitions, Inc., reproduces this tension between structural and individualistic explanations for downsizing and managerial unemployment. On the one hand, Transitions' counselors encourage managers to accept structural explanations because it releases them from feelings of shame associated with job loss. As one manager explained: "I blamed myself a lot in the beginning. I moped around wondering what I'd done wrong. But now I see that there was nothing I could have done. Like Linda says, we wouldn't be here if our employers still valued loyalty." Accepting structural explanations of categorical fate enables them to move beyond self-blame and retain the self-confidence needed to cope in a tight job market.

The structural explanations advocated by counselors at Transitions, though, were undermined by individualist strategies for survival also advocated by the program. While Linda and her associates are very conscientious about emphasizing the structural explanations for downsizing, they are in business to help unemployed managers find jobs and make as smooth a transition as possible: "Our job," Linda explains, "is to help them help themselves, especially since many won't find a job while they are at Transitions." Thus, Linda and her associates spend a considerable amount of time providing clients with technical information about job search strategies, building and maintaining a network, managing the interview process, and how to write the trendiest resume.

Most managers, upon discovering so much that they did not know, are susceptible to self blame. During interviews, they argue that since they have come to Transitions, they have come to realize that they really had not kept up with all the changes. They wonder how they could have been so foolish as to have believed that loyalty would be rewarded with job security. They admonish themselves for getting "too fat" and "too cushy" in their old jobs. At fifty-five, Mark found himself out of work after thirty-three years at a local hospital. He had begun in an entry-level research position, completed his graduate degree while working full-time, and eventually became vice president of research and marketing. Mark, though, did not seem proud of his longevity; in fact, he seemed ashamed of it:

"I don't think I should have done that, though. It wasn't a good thing to do. An employer looks at that and he says, "why did this guy stay there so long?" The assumption is that I haven't had much diversity in my career, and that's a drawback. I can, of course, point to all the varied experience I have had in that position. But, if I had it to do all over again I'd certainly take a look at my situation and move around a bit. It's important to get experience with different companies, because if you stay in one place all the time, then you settle and don't push yourself to do more."

Strategies for self-help are interpreted by managers as a lack in their knowledge and thus an indication that they were personally responsible for their fate. They blame themselves and others for failing to keep up with changes affecting the corporate world.


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