The Meritocracy Myth
Migrants to the UK regularly find that their hard work isn't equally rewarded, so Isaac Izekor feels that its time for diaspora communities to evolve their approach to building new legacies.
Words by Isaac Izekor
Illustration by Lisa Hooper
In January 2003, I arrived with my family in the UK for the first time. We were cold from day one. January is a bad time for any Nigerian emigrating to London, but understandably my dad was in a rush to move us. He’d already been separated from Mum and I for a year while preparing our home. Ultimately, two missed birthdays; one for Mum the other for me, were all his heart could take.
I remember a lot from our first year. It’s impossible to erase the wonder of seeing snow for the first time. I keenly remember “pardon” being the first word I could pronounce with a perfect British accent. I don’t remember much of my Dad. He spent much of that year working multiple jobs and he worked hard in each one. His reaction to a lot of our problems while the UK became our home, was to work harder. For better or worse, he passed that on to me.
My story isn’t unique. Anyone blessed with a minority culture can point to a heritage of hard work. It takes a lot to move from a place you intrinsically understand to one that’s foreign. That transition can’t be made without hard work. But the mindset isn’t just about hard work. It’s a perspective and ideology of self-dependence. Sometimes that self-dependence defines the “self” as a group or family but in short, it’s an ideology that screams, if no one will help me, I’ll help myself. That strategy requires that society is a meritocracy, that hard work is equally rewarded regardless of who undertakes it.
A major movement decision for many immigrants is the pursuit of a better standard of living for themselves and their families. That means leaving a lasting legacy in the places that become our homes. Allowing the family we bring with us to be better off for the move. The work to do that isn’t always self-focused. In those early months as we settled it was family and friends we relied on that allowed us to survive and thrive, a shared sense of immigrating that lessens the individual load of being a foreigner in a sometimes hostile environment.
You’re keenly aware of some of these inequalities when working. My degree educated father’s first few jobs were at Tescos and McDonald’s. 34% of foreigners work in positions that they are overqualified for. The share of workers in part-time jobs because they could not find a full-time position was 9% for those born in the Middle East, North Africa and Central Asia and 3% for UK born workers. Immigrants are aware that, as the ex-PepsiCo CEO Indra Noori says “the job can be taken away at any time, so make sure you earn it every day”. This awareness leads many to take whatever jobs they can, regardless of circumstances. Foreign-born workers are more likely to work during night shifts and in non-permanent jobs than their UK-born counterparts. It’s this specific tension that underpins the immigrant mindset. A distinct recognition that the working landscape is unequal but reacting to that inequality with more work.
The immigrant mindset is a shared project between migrants and the communities they inhabit. It’s a series of behaviours and beliefs influenced by vulnerability and reinforced by limited access to resources for life.
Meritocracy has for a large part already structured a lot of society. For a long time, free education up to the university level has enabled some level of equal opportunity. The welfare state that our country equally disdains and supports, creates a social safety net for the most vulnerable. Perhaps now more than ever those who are truly “good enough” have the greatest chance to be successful.
More than society’s structure, the idea of a meritocratic state sounds nice. Meritocracy is our innate response to social issues like nepotism and inequality but it has a weakness at its core. Meritocracy works for those who are already privileged. It has worked for generations of privileged people and is a tool to maintain the status quo more than anything else.
We can’t forget the migrants’ influence on the meritocracy project. As new arrivals in a country, we have limited control over external factors for success, so we focus on internal factors. Hard work, an entrepreneurial mindset and focus are temperaments that are extolled. Despite the uneven playing field, there are many examples of those ideals generating universally acknowledged success. A 2011 Forbes article found that 40% of fortune 500 companies were founded by immigrants or their children.
The successful cases become the majority narrative. In the home, children are inclined to reflect on their parents, aunts and uncles experiences. They are taught that working hard, applying yourself and passing with flying colours is the only way to get your foot through the door.
Much of my success is due to what my parents instilled in me. It’s only fair that we celebrate when and how that mindset works. Firstly, hard work isn’t a bad thing. At its core, believing in meritocracy fosters a strong internal locus of control. In all our life experiences, we are the common denominator. So improving our capacity to create and take advantage of opportunities for success, is never a bad thing.
The immigrant mindset is also innately entrepreneurial. If the locus of control is always in my hands then there’s always a solution in the mix. Therefore, success can always be found with the right application of creative problem solving, knowledge, collaboration and pure grit. Meritocracy is a mindset that seeks solutions first and has no use for excuses.
As we’ve already explored, self-reliance in migrant communities is rarely individual in focus. We always share gratitude for those who have worked hard to create the opportunities we get to take advantage of now. It helps develop respect for family members and peers who are all seeking success together. When one succeeds it is a win for all of us, because it’s an opportunity to follow in their footsteps and contribute together to our communities’ generational wealth. All in all, it’s an outlook that encourages continuous self-improvement, but one that can create problematic perspectives too.
Like all ideologies, the immigrant mindset has its weaknesses. It puts the responsibility for success squarely in the individual’s hands and highlights working success as the major requirement for a happy life. In that regard, it’s easy to see how it creates an unsustainable life view and constant pressure to always do and be more.
Prejudices and stereotypes hold back non-white workers in ways simply working hard can’t overcome. Foreign names, poor socio-economic backgrounds and race may affect prejudiced employers’ likelihood of employing an immigrant despite their skill. If the playing field is unequal, simply playing harder at best acts as a veil to society’s larger issues. At worst the immigrant mindset can cause more harm than good to the communities it’s entrenched in.
A strong belief in meritocracy frames hardship as a result of low-intelligence and laziness. It makes people completely responsible for their lack of success when societal systems play an equal and in some cases an overwhelming part. Rather than promoting confidence, it can create insecurities and shame when mile-stones for success aren’t met. The mindset effectively elevates achievement over mental health.
A further issue is how success milestones are often overly materialistic. This ideology pushes people to value distinct external presenters of achievement rather than internal satisfaction. Family, peace and happiness are easily exchanged for working hard to create more opportunities for success. It’s not just the amount of time spent on work vs. family. A laser-like focus on work reroutes important energy for life in one direction. And it’s not just the perpetrators that pay the price. The Harvard Business Review found that children of fathers who were overly psychologically focused on their careers were more likely to show behavioural problems, regardless of the hours the fathers worked.
Defining people’s value due to what they can achieve rather than celebrating the innate value people have, is an ugly side-effect of the tunnel vision that meritocracy creates. It’s ultimately a tiring anchor that is antithetical to long-term success however you define it and consistently breeds burnout.
Even if we know our perspective is flawed, it’s a difficult task to change it wholesale. There are practical behaviours that we can engage in to mitigate the larger issues with the “immigrant mindset”.
First and foremost we have to start categorising our work. Not all hard work is practically useful and we need to more regularly identify the difference between working ‘hard’ and working ‘smart’. Working smart means utilising all aspects of our capabilities not just our raw grit. Many of us have unexpected networks that can place us in rooms we thought were closed. We need to learn how to leverage and communicate our existing value too, not just the value of our future selves.
We need to actively seek self-fulfilment outside of qualifications and academic achievement. Place value in all efforts and your personal growth, not just the efforts others consider valuable. You are valuable, so if something is important to you, then it’s important full-stop.
Work against the thought that you’re a failure if you don’t have merits, qualifications or end up where you thought you would be. You’re not weak for growing tired, you’re just human. Like any athlete, rest has to be a regular part of productivity. We’ve rarely made space for rest over the years, in a physical or mental context. We have to acknowledge it as a vital part of the process and one that has to be separated from the stereotypical shame that it has become associated with.
Even with all this for some, the mindset is deeply ingrained. Immigrants themselves may have gotten so far with this mentality and possibly prefer to maintain it. It’s up to us, their children to stand on their shoulders and update the model, so that it drives our communities forward in new ways, building on the foundations built for us, with an outlook that paves the way for future generations to adapt things again so that they too can flourish within the system that they find themselves.
The Meritocracy Myth is written by the brilliant Isaac Izekor and is illustrated by his equally brilliant Nuff Said contemporary Lisa Hooper. Follow Lisa on Instagram here. Both are founding members of Nuff Said, an award-winning creative agency that’s passionate about diversity. They’re a young team of creative superheroes, whose brilliant mix of skills and creativity makes them a fantastic go-to for brands who want to have real conversations about diversity and want to connect with a genuinely diverse audience. We’re big fans and hope that you’ll check them out and find ways to collaborate with them soon.