Stress and the meritocracy: problems of our time?

That our society is strongly defined by performance is no big news. In itself, there is nothing wrong with performing, but it is important to know the limits of one's capacities. Only those who perform sustainably can do so over the long term.

What is the meritocracy?

Meritocracy is understood as a form of society in which the status of the individual is defined by income and influence.

Income is earned through economic performance. We are often told from an early age that it is best to work hard at school from the very beginning so that we can have a "good job" later on. We are more or less told that this is the way to a fulfilled life.

Since a job is a big part of our day in later years, there is absolutely nothing wrong with striving for a job that fulfills us.

In principle, it can be said that the more economic output you produce, the more money you earn. So the more goods you produce or sell, the more income you will have in the long run.

But income is not the only thing that defines status in meritocracy, because influence is also very important. Often, income and influence are closely linked, but there are regular exceptions. For example, many voluntary tasks are highly regarded because one is of service to society even without remuneration.

So whoever does something good for society, or in other words, whoever helps others has a higher status in society than someone who helps less. This is of great advantage, as it is a reasonably good way of rewarding work performance through personal benefits, and at the same time ensuring that all people within that society work in a direction that everyone agrees to achieve.

The "ultimate goal" of meritocracy is for all people to live in peace, freedom and prosperity. This is achieved by the fact that peace increases productivity, since one does not have to deal with wars. Freedom ensures that everyone can trade with everyone else by mutual agreement. And last but not least, the generated output ensures that productivity within society increases to such an extent that no one has to endure hunger, cold or illness.

The problems with the meritocracy

But if meritocracy in and of itself brings so many good things, what are the negative aspects?

The exclusion

Because status is determined by performance, all those who can perform less (economically) are automatically of lower status than all those who can perform more. Physically impaired people are thus often condemned by society, through no fault of their own, not to participate fully in this "game." No person should be condemned because of factors beyond their own control. Even if this judgment does not obviously take place, it is implicit in the maximum opportunities for advancement.

Rising stress levels

Another problem is that the permanent pressure to perform is very damaging to the psyche in the long run. This problem is excellently reflected in statistics on mental illness:

In the last 20 years, the number of mental illnesses continues to increase. In the last three years, this can be attributed to the Corona pandemic, among other things. And other events, such as fears about the future due to climate change, are certainly factors responsible for the rising numbers. But according to Statistics the burnout rate alone is from 0.6% in 2004 of the working population on 5.9% in 2019 increased. This is particularly interesting because burnout is directly attributable to working life.

But how does this stress come about in the working world? The easiest way to understand this is with an example.

Stahl Company has three employees: Anton, Bernd and Chris. Anton works much harder than the others. The company boss therefore very often tells Bernd and Chris that they should be more diligent and work harder. The boss does not see that Bernd and Chris are already exposed to more stress in their private lives, due to family or illness.
After some time, Chris quits because he can no longer cope with the pressure. While the boss is looking for a new worker, he notices that Anton and Bernd can do the work together. However, the increased stress level causes Bernd to tell the boss that he will quit under such circumstances. For this reason a new worker is organized. Dieter and Tom are hired.
But because the boss has now tasted blood, and has seen what potential the workers were capable of. He trains Dieter and Tom under already more stressful factors than Anton, Bernd and Chris were originally trained for.
After some time, Bernd also quits because, although new workers were hired, the workload was not reduced. As a result, a new worker is hired again, but he is still trained at the increased stress level.

As you can see very nicely in this example, productivity is inevitably increased in the modern working world. Everything is optimized, machines as well as people have to perform better in order to generate ever higher margins. Those who drop out of this continuous run are replaced by willing workers. However, these cannot endure this stress forever either. But even if they leave, they are simply replaced again.

The already existing shortage of skilled workers further fuels this problem: Since most jobs are already thinly staffed, it is the case that each new employee already has to perform better than in a fully staffed company.

Hustle Culture

People who can hardly define themselves by friends, hobbies or anything else tend to distinguish themselves by their performance. These people take on much more work than most. Their whole meaning of life seems to temporarily revolve exclusively around this goal.

In modern language, this is called the "hustler mindset". Since this article is more about the meritocracy as a whole, I will not go into it further. However, if you are more interested in the Hustle Culture, I recommend you to read this contribution to read.

The shortage of skilled workers

Another problem of the meritocracy that has become increasingly apparent in recent years is the shortage of skilled workers mentioned above. Since a person's status is defined by his or her performance, it is not considered good for many people to learn a skilled trade. The best thing is to go to university and work in a white collar profession - as a doctor, lawyer or similar.

According to a Study of the "Federal and State Demography Portal started in Germany in 2020 466,000 people an apprenticeship, in the same year started 490 000 people study. In the meantime, more people are pursuing a degree than an apprenticeship. The problem here is that many of the students have neither the time nor the competence to repair things in their household later in life. So there is a need for trained specialists such as plumbers, car mechanics, electricians, carpenters, painters and so on.

But if fewer people aspire to an apprenticeship, let alone a skilled trade, then the shortage of skilled workers will cause the infrastructure - as we have it today, appreciate it and take it for granted - to crumble.

The fact that we get water from the tap, electricity from the can, heat from the heater and food from the supermarket is in the hands of people and their professions. Professions in which fewer and fewer people work, on the one hand because they do not receive enough prestige and on the other because they are not paid well enough. But aren't we saving at the wrong end here?

After all, if we wait for a repairman, we will not only face longer waiting times, but also higher costs. In addition, some damages can become bigger if they are not repaired as soon as possible. For example, a burst pipe that is not repaired quickly enough can damage the walls as well as the floor, causing immense additional costs.

Necessary changes in society

Above all else, it is important that we begin to see people as people. Not as potential that this person can give back to society. People have many more facets than their productivity. Some people can produce music that makes us feel alive. Some others can tell jokes as good as few can. And so on.

A mother raising three children simply does not have the capacity to work a full-time job. Is raising her offspring worth less than someone who controls corporate accounting?

It goes without saying that no company would pay a mother money just because she might be raising new potential staff (but maybe that would be a great job for the state, what do you think?). In all cases, however, the appreciation you can give her costs nothing - but is worth a lot.

Just as we look down on the mother, we also look down on many other professions or vocations. After all, no one sees a railroad job, garbage collection, or a sewer work as a desirable occupation, yet these are the very occupations that make up our lives of luxury and prosperity. Garbage men and women have saved more lives than doctors ever could.

It is at least as important to know one's own limits and to be able to say them clearly to one's superiors. A phenomenon that is becoming more and more widespread is the Quite QuittingThis is a situation in which workers only do the minimum amount of work required by their contract and are usually already looking for new jobs because they are no longer happy in their jobs. If you are interested in this topic, please have a look at our article on this topic Quiet Quitting Over.

Although we have more and more highly productive machines, which produce significantly more goods than the workers did 70 years ago, we still work 40-hour weeks (although this was introduced as a reduction of the workload, by the technical progress of industrialization).

Stress levels in most professions are also rising. Whereas one would have to assume that if machines take over more work, people should have more free time and thus be less stressed.

This is because although we always have more, we still want more. In all kinds of media, we are told that we can have more, that our happiness can be ordered at the push of a button. Happiness, however, is not something you can work for, let alone buy. Fortunately (pun intended) you are here on a philosophy blog. If you're looking for a happier life yourself, we've got a small selection of articles for you to browse through:

Is there a way to happiness? (Buddha's Answer)

Buddha On Happiness and Personal Responsibility

Siddhartha Explains How To Bring Joy Into Our Lives

Chuang Tzu on Happiness and the Pursuit of Happiness (How to Become Happier)

Zhuangzi: the pursuit of happiness - philosophy simply explained

Epicurus on materialism: How to be happy with little

Last but not least, a pair of thoughts to take away:

  • Do not define yourself by your status or your performance. You yourself decide how you perceive yourself and therefore how others perceive you.
  • Be proud of what you do and what you are.
  • Do not load yourself with burdens that are beyond your control.
  • When the world seems to become too much, take a step back, breathe deeply and realize that you don't have to do anything.
  • Everything you do is voluntary.
  • You came into this world with nothing and you will leave with nothing, all the time you have in this world is a gift. So use your time wisely and don't run after any ideals that others give you.
  • No matter what you work, build, achieve, what you do or don't do; You are enough.

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