Chapter One: Peak Head Chapter One Peak Head We… need to apply ourselves to something we do not yet quite know how to do: to eradicate contempt for those who are disfavoured by the ethic of effortful competition.
Kwame Anthony Appiah
What has gone wrong in rich, Western democracies? Political polarization. Economic stagnation. A weaker sense of common interest. Disappointed expectations among the university-educated mass elite. A rising tide of depression and loneliness. A crisis of meaning.
Even before the Covid-19 crisis struck there was a mood of despondency in our politics—a sense that losers were outnumbering winners in nations buffeted by anonymous global forces, that the public realm was being slowly poisoned by social media, and that mainstream politics was failing to recognize the widespread yearning for stability and belonging.
But there’s an overarching explanation for some of these discontents that was, and still is, hiding in plain sight. In recent decades, in the interests of efficiency, fairness, and progress, Western democracies have established systems of competition in which the most able succeed and too many of the rest feel like failures.
Who are the most able? People with higher levels of cognitive ability, or at least those certified
as such by the education system. One form of human aptitude—cognitive-analytical ability, or the talent that helps people to pass exams and then handle information efficiently in their professional lives—has become the gold standard of human esteem
. Those with a generous helping of this aptitude have formed a new kind of expanded cognitive class—a mass elite—who now shape society, and do so broadly in their own interests.
To put it more bluntly: smart people have become too powerful. How is this different from the past? Seventy years ago, just after the Second World War, when we lived in less complex societies, the people who ran government and business were generally brighter and more ambitious than the average—as they still are today.
What’s different is that, back then, skills and qualities other than cognitive-analytical intelligence were held in higher regard. Education had not yet emerged as the primary marker of social stratification. In the 1970s most people in rich societies left school with no qualifications at all, and as recently as the 1990s many professionals lacked university degrees.
In the language of political cliché, the “best and brightest” today trump the “decent and hardworking.” Qualities like character, integrity, experience, common sense, courage, and willingness to toil are by no means irrelevant, but they command relatively less respect.
When such virtues are undervalued, it can contribute to what socially conservative critics call a “moral deregulation” in which simply being a good person is valued less and it becomes harder to feel satisfaction and self-respect living an ordinary, decent life, especially in the bottom part of the income spectrum.
Without us noticing it, something fundamental has got out of kilter. It is too early to tell whether the Covid-19 crisis will contribute to a better balance between aptitudes based on “Head,” “Hand,” and “Heart.” But we need one. The three aptitudes overlap to a degree, but the modern knowledge economy has produced ever rising returns for Head workers—who are highly qualified academically—and reduced the relative pay and status of much manual (Hand) work.
At the same time, many aspects of caring (Heart) work, traditionally done by women in the gift economy of the family, continues to be undervalued even as care work has become an increasingly critical part of the public economy and was so widely applauded (literally) at the height of the crisis.
An economic and social system in rich countries that once had a place for a range of aptitudes and abilities—in the skilled and semiskilled jobs of the industrial era, on the land, in the military, in the church, in the private realm of the family—now favors the cognitive classes and the educationally successful.
The diminishing sway of those older structures and ways of life are a necessary condition of freer, more open societies, especially for women. But what many of those institutions also provided were forms of unconditional recognition based simply on being you, and a role and a purpose for the people, both men and women, whose strengths lie elsewhere than in the cognitive-analytical. Just doing your duty and making a contribution brought a degree of respect.
Moreover, whereas until recently different social classes and groups and regions had their own separate leaders and hierarchies and measures of prestige, today in most developed countries there is something more like a single, common elite
that has passed through the same funnel of higher education and then into the top quartile of professional and managerial occupations. At the very top, these national elites merge into a semi-global one that studies at the same universities, works at the same corporations and institutions, and consumes the same media.
For most of human history, cognitive-analytical ability was scattered more or less randomly through society, with only a tiny minority attending university, religious seminaries, or similarly elite academies. But in recent decades in rich countries, a huge sorting process has taken place in which most of the young exam passers are swept up and sent into higher education. This has triggered a significant decline in the status of much nongraduate employment and also made promotion from below much harder for those without the passport of a university degree.
This does not mean that we now live in a true meritocracy. Family income and the educational background of your parents still correlates strongly with educational and career success, and indeed with performance in IQ-type tests.
The children of two-parent professional families are far more likely to be brought up by parents who are well-connected, understand what is required for children of even middling academic ability to enter good universities and obtain high-status professional jobs, and have the means to invest heavily in them.
The evidence also suggests that most rich societies are at least somewhat open and that many of the cognitively able from lower social classes can and do rise via higher education (thereby helping to legitimize the status quo).
The end result may be the emergence of a partially hereditary meritocracy, especially in the United States, although a few seem to get there by egregiously playing the system.I
Many people, particularly members of the cognitive class themselves, may protest that progress has always been driven forward by the cognitively blessed and that modern, technologically advanced societies simply need more clever people—especially in software and computer science—than ever before.
Moreover, they may add, the so-called Flynn effect (named after the New Zealand academic James Flynn) shows that everyone
is getting brighter—that average IQ levels have been rising throughout the twentieth century as a result of improved living conditions and human minds adapting to a more demanding cognitive environment.1
They argue that as long as the social biases mentioned above are ironed out, through spending on education and a sustained effort to give people of all backgrounds a fair chance at joining the cognitive class, all will be well.
This book disagrees. In the tradition of Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy
, his dystopian satire on rule by the cognitive elite, Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting
, and Charles Murray’s Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010
—a socialist, a centrist, and a conservative—it argues that today’s “achievement society” has replaced one system of domination by another.
It is true that the knowledge created by human reason continues to drive civilization, and in our data-based economies this is not about to decline in importance. The Covid-19 crisis underlined the vital significance of cognitive virtues such as medical expertise, pharmaceutical innovation, and the mathematical modeling of epidemiologists. (Though it has also revealed our dependence on those performing vital noncognitive Hand and Heart functions.) It is also true that the opening up of the cognitive class through the expansion of higher education has broadened the base of privilege.
IQ + effort—in Michael Young’s formula for describing what is required to excel in the meritocracy—is undoubtedly a better selection criterion than nepotism or patronage. A cognitive class that puts innate talent to good use in invention and innovation is obviously preferable to a hereditary one and certainly produces more prosperity. So a meritocratic society has a lot to be said for it: by putting human ability to work, it creates a dynamic and wealthy society that appears to be fair, or at least fairer than the alternatives, and creates opportunities for some people born into disadvantage.
But inclusions often require new exclusions, in this case those who do not have the good fortune or aptitude to acquire a university degree—which is a majority of adults in most rich countries. And people no more earn
their upbringing or innate intelligence than they earn being born into a rich family.
Although IQ-type tests and exams measure raw cognitive ability, they do not capture things like social intelligence and imagination that we today associate with a rounded, capable person. Intelligence is a complex, fuzzy, and often highly context-dependent phenomenon, as I will unpack in Chapter Three, but in the United Kingdom, United States, and France—though less so elsewhere in continental Europe—it is the most abstract forms of reasoning that have historically attracted the most prestige.
Michael Young argued sixty years ago, in his critique of meritocracy, that people blessed with advanced cognitive skills can feel less
obligation to those of below-average intelligence than the rich felt traditionally to the poor. Meritocracy sharply divides winners from losers in the education system while giving losers less psychological protection from their low status.
There will, of course, always be hierarchies of competence. But it is important to distinguish between meritocratic selection systems
for highly skilled jobs and a meritocratic society
. The former is necessary and desirable: you want capable nuclear scientists running your nuclear program. But the latter is not the hallmark of a good society and is potentially a source of mass resentment.
There are two challenges to this critique. Can you have meritocratic selection without
a meritocratic society? I believe you can, because there is no single scale of human worth. A broader valuation of human qualities and aptitudes than those promoted by a cognitive meritocracy is an achievable goal. Human flourishing is compatible with a wide range of abilities and aptitudes.
The second challenge, often expressed by people who have risen into the elite from ordinary or disadvantaged homes, runs like this: I agree that meritocracy is not perfect, but can we have a proper one first before you start attacking it? Do you really want to go back to a dominant class selected on the basis of inherited property and status?
No, of course, I do not want to turn the clock back, I want an elite as open as possible and as much social fluidity as a fair society requires. And in principle it ought to be possible to have plenty of upward (and downward) mobility based on cognitive selection while also respecting and rewarding those who have other skills and aptitudes.
But in practice this is hard to achieve. And if high mobility is the mark of the good society, as both center-left and center-right politicians have argued in recent years, then we are in trouble, because mobility slows when “smart produces smart.”
How close we are to that point and how much mobility we can expect in a fair society is contested, as I will show in Chapter Three. It depends on how much family, class, and environmental factors can tilt the system in favor of the only moderately able and how much ability is heritable. Given that both of those factors are clearly of significance, and assuming we continue to live in relatively free societies that allow families to pass on advantage, the meritocracy will be partial at best or will ossify into a hereditary system. In practice, meritocracy tends towards oligarchy.
One of the most difficult balancing acts of open, modern societies is seldom articulated: namely, how to constrain our partial cognitive meritocracies in a way that prevents disproportionate levels of status and wealth from going to high-cognitive-ability jobs without at the same time disincentivizing the cleverest and most ambitious. To some extent intelligence should be its own reward, but the contribution some of the most talented people make requires some special recognition.
The pleasure of mastering a task and performing it as well as you are able is available to people of all abilities. It is properly the case that more complex and difficult tasks, such as designing a building or helping to invent a new drug, will receive, and deserve to receive, more esteem and reward than delivering parcels or cleaning offices.
But it is also the case that a significant proportion of jobs that require high levels of academic qualification are demonstrably less useful and productive than many low-qualification jobs. Can we really argue that the work of a junior account manager in a financial PR firm is more useful than a bus driver or an adult care worker? Moreover, many jobs in law, finance, and other highly remunerated professions are often zero-sum: one individual or corporation wins and another loses. Public welfare has not been enhanced.
A successful society must balance the tension between the inequality of esteem
that arises from open competition for highly rewarded jobs and the ethos of equality of esteem
that flows from democratic citizenship. It is a tension that pits economic inequality against political equality.
A democratic society that wants to avoid a powerful undercurrent of resentment must sufficiently value and reward a broad range of achievement embracing both cognitive and noncognitive aptitudes and must provide meaning and respect for people who cannot—or do not want to—achieve in the examination room and professional career market. After all, half the population must always by definition be in the bottom half of the cognitive-ability spectrum, or indeed any spectrum you care to choose.
In recent years we have failed to get the balance right. Indeed, it may be the case that industrial societies, for all their failings, were better at distributing status and self-respect, especially for men, than the postindustrial societies we have become.
For many people on the left, this is mainly a problem of income and wealth inequality that can be solved by more redistribution and greater investment in education. Yet, despite noisy claims to the contrary, income inequality has not been rising sharply in many of the countries, including Brexit Britain, where there has been the biggest pushback against the cognitive class status quo.2
If income inequality is the driving force behind political alienation and national populism, how come it is also thriving in the most equal societies on the planet: in Scandinavia?
It is true that slow or nonexistent wage growth is harder to bear when a small minority, most notably those in the financial industries, seem insulated from austerity. And thanks to the rise and rise in house values in certain parts of rich countries there is a lottery aspect to wealth distribution, in the United Kingdom one in five baby boomers is worth £1 million ($1.2 million) or more3
—while younger people struggle to get on the housing ladder.
But this misses an even bigger though less measurable story about esteem and how valued people feel in the world. Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, who has pioneered the work on “deaths of despair” in the United States (suicides and deaths from drug and alcohol abuse), says he is struck by how little
money has to do with such deaths. Recent happiness research, similarly, finds income to be of little significance in levels of well-being.
I call myself a social democrat and would like to live in a fairer and more equal society. But I think a big part of our problem lies in the undervaluing of everything that is not cognitively complex. If we attached more value, both in terms of prestige and income, to the caregivers and the skilled trades, income would naturally spread more evenly across society and economic growth would be more consistent and stable.
Western rationalist philosophy, from Plato to Descartes, reinforced by Christianity, has tended to privilege the mind as the source of immutable truth and understanding and looked down upon the body as the source of irrational appetite and moral inconstancy. For this reason embodied, emotional labor like nursing and care for the young and old has suffered lower prestige, along with the fact that they are overwhelmingly female occupations.
And all too often, cognitive ability and meritocratic achievement is confused with moral worth. The Latin root of “meritocracy”—meritum
, for “merit”—means worthy of praise. It creeps into the language of everyday life. Newspapers are far more likely to highlight the accidental death of a promising twenty-two-year-old medical student than a twenty-two-year-old hairdresser. And how often, when you hear someone describing positively a new friend or work colleague, will they say before anything else, “Oh, he/she is so smart”? How often do you hear people described as generous or wise?
There’s also a clear trend in modern politics to place special value on cognitive skills. High cognitive or analytical ability and success in the knowledge economy correlates strongly with support for the modern liberal virtues of individual autonomy, mobility, and hostility to tradition—the opposite of parochialism. Creative and intellectually gifted people tend to have an interest in the free flow of ideas across borders and boundaries. They may also have an interest in the relatively free flow of people across borders, providing them with multinational career options. These habits of mind dominate in the expanded higher-education sector of modern societies making, it hard for highly educated people to understand small-c
“Anywheres” and “Somewheres”
This was one of the themes of my last book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics
, in which I described the value divides in British society, revealed starkly by the Brexit vote. On the one hand is the group I describe as the “Anywheres.” They make up about 25 to 30 percent of the population, are well educated (mainly with at least an undergraduate degree), often live far from their parents, tend to favor openness and autonomy, and are comfortable with social fluidity and novelty.
On the other hand is a larger group of people I call the “Somewheres.” They make up about half of the population, are less well educated, are more rooted, and value security and familiarity. They place a much greater emphasis on group attachments (local and national) than the Anywheres. (There is also an in-betweener group who share the two worldviews almost equally.)
Anywheres are generally comfortable with social change because they have “achieved identities,” a sense of themselves derived from educational and career achievements, which allows them to fit in pretty much, well, anywhere
. Somewheres, on the other hand, tend to have “ascribed identities,” rooted more in place or group, which means that they are more easily discomforted by rapid change to those places and groups.
The Anywhere-Somewhere divide is very loose and fuzzy and does not map neatly onto the high-low cognitive ability divide. There are Anywheres of below-average cognitive ability and Somewheres of very high cognitive ability. In any case, as we shall see, there is some disagreement about what cognitive ability actually is and whether it is well captured in IQ tests or exams. Most of us know highly able people who have been poor at passing exams, and people with impressive academic credentials who appear dim.
Both the Anywhere and Somewhere worldviews are decent and legitimate, but the values and priorities of Anywheres have come to dominate modern politics and all mainstream political parties. And the Anywhere answer to everything from social mobility to improved productivity has been the same: more academic higher education in the quintessentially Anywhere institution of the modern university.
The Anywhere-Somewhere divide has certainly been exacerbated by the narrow focus on cognitive ability of recent decades. Yet, as David Lucas, the children’s author and illustrator, has persuasively argued, society needs the cognitive skills of the knowledge economy, but we also need the craft skills of artisans, technicians, and the skilled trades, the imagination of artists, and the emotional intelligence of those in caring jobs.4
He observes that the chronic undervaluing of Hand and Heart skills has unbalanced our societies and alienated millions of people. It also lurks beneath the surface of many contemporary crises, from mental health to recruitment problems in nursing and adult care.
Of course, bright people from whatever background should travel as far as their talents will take them, and, for many of the very brightest young people, attending an elite research university is the most appropriate way to nurture their abilities. There are also many other people, some smart and creative, whose intelligence manifests itself in a nonacademic way, who are not suited to higher education, and would do better going straight into jobs.
But today’s American, British, and indeed European “dreams” have become too narrowly defined as going to university and into a professional job. This isn’t surprising when in the United States 93 percent of congresspeople and 99 percent of senators hold at least bachelor degrees, compared to a national US average of 32 percent, and more than 90 percent of British MPs are graduates, up from less than half in the 1970s.
Politicians of all stripes make the same point. In his celebrated speech about inequality at Osawatomie, Kansas, President Obama said that “a higher education is the surest route to the middle class.” Left Democrats like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren go even further and demand “college for all.”
Not everyone can be a winner, however you design the game. In some fields such as law, medicine, technology, and some corners of business, “winner-takes-all” markets have provided exceptional rewards to exceptional people—people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk—who have both high cognitive skills and practical knowledge of something that gives them a big first-mover advantage in new digital markets.
Below them is a wider group of highly educated—and highly credentialized—people from top universities who have the intelligence and personality attributes to propel them into the top layer of jobs.
Another level down is what one might call the rank and file of the cognitive class, the mass elite. These are people who have, in recent years, been directed into the expanded higher-education sector by parents, teachers, financial incentives, and, too often, by the lack of other post-school options (at least in the United Kingdom and United States). In the United Kingdom there are now more graduates than nongraduates among the under-thirties. Many have earned valuable qualifications and launched successful professional careers, yet too many others find themselves with degrees of little value in jobs with only high school graduate cognitive requirements (and student debts to pay off).
It is not clear that people in these last two groups are necessarily cleverer than the average citizen. After all, the majority of people achieve average or above-average scores on IQ-type tests. Their entry into the cognitive class is just as much attributable to background, social convention, and the character traits—self-discipline, application, and so on—that make academic success possible. Nevertheless, they often acquire expectations of professional status that, especially in the case of the mass elite group, are not satisfied by the relatively routine jobs they often go into.
Studying Sanskrit or Middlemarch
at university can be a personally enriching experience, but, looked at through another lens, many university degrees, especially in the humanities, are not so much about what you know but a signal to employers that you have certain attributes. And from the point of view of the individual graduate, your degree level is something that fixes you in a hierarchy above or below your peers.
Making many occupations like nursing and policing graduate-only is not necessarily wrong, but there is an element of “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” about it: if an undergraduate degree has become the only route to respect and prestige for an occupation, then why should nurses and police officers be denied it?
But as Randall Collins, the sociologist of education, has pointed out, this can lead to a cycle of credential inflation that “could go on endlessly, until janitors need PhDs, and household workers and babysitters will be required to hold advanced degrees in household appliances and childcare.”5
In the United Kingdom there has been an attempt in recent years to offer better options to the half of high school graduates who do not go on to university, with a training levy on bigger employers to promote apprenticeships. But in the United Kingdom, unlike in many continental European countries, it is almost impossible to compete with the prestige of the university route, and the lack of a well-trodden, properly funded, sub-university vocational/technical route has left the economy starved of essential workers. In 2017, 42 percent of UK employers said they were struggling to fill vacancies for skilled trades jobs.6
It is a similar story in the United States.
Meanwhile, Heart jobs in social care for the elderly, early-years education, and child care continue to be undervalued and often underpaid. Most nursery workers earn around £17,000 a year and a baby-sitter, even in London, is paid about £6 an hour per child.
Today’s women’s equality movement has focused primarily on breaking glass ceilings and competing equally with men in the world of professional careers. It has been more ambivalent about trying to raise the status of caring and nurturing occupations, which are associated with traditionally female roles. Women now have many more opportunities than in the 1950s or 1960s and fewer are volunteering for caring roles. Not many men are picking up the slack. In part, this explains the crisis in social care and in nurse recruitment.
Of course, as noted, Head, Hand, and Heart are always interacting. The Heart and Head are combined in the modern graduate nurse who has become a quasi-doctor. And many skilled-trade Hand roles, like plumber or car mechanic or IT support worker, require cognitive diagnostic skills that are not that different from the problem-solving abilities of a medical consultant.
Yet, Head abstraction and detachment increasingly dominate our culture. The ethos of digital giants like Google and Facebook is self-consciously unrooted and global. It is best summed up in Airbnb’s oxymoronic slogan: “Belong Anywhere.” The internet and social media kept us connected in the Covid-19 crisis, and even in normal times these can help friends and communities come together more easily. But the advance of digital platforms into our lives has tended to reduce opportunities for craft and the need for human contact or attachment to specific places. By contrast, it is the undervalued embodied
skills of Hand and Heart that promote belonging and attachment.
Across the developed world, the one quality-of-life indicator that is said to be declining
is mental health. Mental well-being depends on a sense of meaning and purpose and a feeling that we are part of something larger than ourselves, useful to and needed by others (as confirmed by happiness research). It is our attachments that give us meaning and purpose. The most powerful route to meaning is through love, mutual dependence, and serving others. In other words, the realm of the Heart.
This can apply to the Hand too. Productive work with your Hand and Head on a farm or in a bicycle repair shop produces the pleasure of being immanent, in this place and time, the awareness of being much more than a disembodied intellect, a brain in a jar. The American philosopher Matthew Crawford wrote a book—The Case for Working with Your Hands: Or Why Office Work Is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good
—that is partly about the intellectual
satisfaction of Hand work.
Yet, especially in the Anglo-Saxon countries, achievement, success, even happiness, have increasingly become associated with physical mobility and disconnection from presence and place, custom and practice.
The fact is that joining the world of cognitive achievers often does require geographical mobility, especially in the United Kingdom, where this is reinforced by residential universities. In a speech in 2017, Justine Greening, the United Kingdom’s former secretary of state for education, said: “All the years I spent growing up in Rotherham… I was aiming for something better… a better job, owning my own home, an interesting career, a life that I found really challenging… I knew there was something better out there…”7
The longing to spread your wings and seek fame and fortune in the big city is a common enough impulse across all times and in all places. Yet the unselfconscious way in which a (then) British cabinet minister doubts whether it is possible for an able, ambitious person to live a fulfilled life in a town of 120,000 people that is a thirty-minute commute from Sheffield, a city of more than half a million, reveals something flawed about modern Britain. Many towns like Rotherham lose 20 to 30 percent of their brightest eighteen-year-olds every year to university. Many of them never return, exacerbating the country’s geographical divisions.
The American writer Michael Lind has described this as Hubs versus Heartlands: the former are home to most of the professional class and are where high-end business and professional services are located; the latter are where you find most goods production and mass services. The Hubs are socially liberal, home to most ethnic minorities, and astonishingly unequal: the gap between richest and poorest in New York City is comparable to that of Swaziland.8
The Heartlands are particularly neglected in Britain thanks to an over-mighty capital city, but there are similar patterns in parts of the ex-industrial United States, France (where the gilets jaunes
[yellow vests] movement was a cry for recognition by the French heartland), and Germany, especially the former East Germany. (The so-called red wall of traditionally Labour seats that turned Tory in the 2019 UK election were Heartland seats; the Hubs remained mainly Labour.)
Peter Lampl, of the United Kingdom’s social mobility charity the Sutton Trust, says that “it is often those who are most mobile who are most likely to find success” and wants to encourage more people from lower socioeconomic groups to enjoy what a Sutton Trust report refers to as the “migration premium.”9
But not everyone wants or needs to uproot themselves. Even if they did, there are limits on how many people can rise up into the cognitive class. Yet all of us need to feel we have a valued place in society from where we can participate and contribute even if we are not mobile high achievers.
As Joan C. Williams pointed out in her book White Working Class: Overcoming Class Cluelessness in America
for many perfectly able working class people “their dream is not to join the upper middle class with its different culture but to stay true to their own values in their own communities, just with more money.”10
And physical mobility has in fact been declining sharply in the United States in recent decades. Michael Lind, in his book The New Class War,
says that 57 percent of Americans have never lived outside their home state and 37 percent have never lived anywhere but their hometown. And according to an Upshot analysis published in the New York Times
in 2015 the typical American adult lives only 18 miles from his or her mother.11
The number of people crossing a county boundary for work has halved since the 1950s and now stands at just 4 percent of the working population.12
This brings us to the central challenge for democratic politics in all rich countries: how to achieve an open society and elite while continuing to value relatively stable, meaningful, communities? How can ambitious people follow their desires and leave without making those who stay feel that they have been left behind and diminished? How can the stayers have the same opportunity as the leavers to live successful and fulfilled lives in their own way?
The technology of connection that makes it easier for leavers to stay in touch may also make it easier for stayers to feel they do not need to leave to be part of what matters. But the Anywhere-dominated political class has not been addressing this dilemma and for a quarter of a century has ruled too much in its own interests: promoting mobility, pushing for the most open possible economy and society, and hugely expanding academic higher education.
The ethos of service and duty that used to underpin so many professions often seems to have been replaced with a claim to moral leadership. And the political focus on social mobility, on moving up and out, often sounds like a form of cognitive class narcissism—“You, too, can be like us”—combined with a belief that ordinary lives are less valuable.
Meanwhile, the political class has felt able to ignore some of the basic political intuitions of the Somewheres: the importance of stable neighborhoods and well-managed national borders; the idea of national social contracts and placing the rights of national citizens ahead of universal rights; and the evolution but not abolition of the gender division of labor.
And they have failed to recognize the need for narrative and recognition among those who cannot thrive in a professionalized Head-based economy. Ideas like the dignity of labor and working for the common good of the nation, the enterprise or the public, now seem quaint. And while for many professional people work is a central source of meaning and identity, for around half the population in both the United Kingdom and the United States a job is just a way of earning a living, with people finding meaning in other aspects of their lives.
Highly educated Anywheres, because they are often more articulate and better trained in assessing information, flatter themselves with the belief that their values flow from reason and evidence. In fact, as with Somewheres, their priorities and intuitions usually come first, and invariably facts are found that fit with them—so-called motivated reasoning. They are also just as subject to groupthink. And, after all, experts have not covered themselves in glory in the past twenty years, as seen in the failures to predict Iraqis’ response to invasion; the financial crisis of 2007–2008; the Brexit vote; and the election of Donald Trump. Perhaps, too, the failure to properly prepare for Covid-19, which had, after all, been very widely predicted. Very few of us, even populists, are hostile to scientific or medical experts (apart from anti-vaccine people) and the status of such experts is likely to rise in the aftermath of the crisis. But many people will remain skeptical about political and economic and social scientific experts passing off their often politically driven views as objective and neutral.
The Head, Hand, and Heart triumvirate have slipped more out of kilter in the United States and the United Kingdom than in most of continental Europe, which retains stronger communitarian traditions and respect for “practical and vocational intelligence” and people doing basic jobs. It is also in the United Kingdom and United States where in the twentieth century there has been most reliance on IQ-type tests—the eleven-plus in the United Kingdom and SAT tests in the United States—which claim to reveal innate talents
rather than test how hard people have worked and how much they know. And it is no surprise that it’s in the Anglo-Saxon countries, with Brexit and Trump, that we have seen the biggest backlash against cognitive class hegemony, despite—or perhaps because of—such a large proportion of graduates.
The End of Peak Head
Later in this book I will trace what has happened to each of the three broad streams of human aptitude, Head, Hand, and Heart, in the past seventy years. I will also sketch out some of the heated debates about the nature of cognitive ability, how it is distributed, and whether it is properly measured in IQ tests.
The book will trace my own journey, too, from a leftish journalist who saw politics mainly through the prism of economic motivations—and for whom data was key—to my growing sense, in the last decade or so, of people’s need for meaning and recognition, and the power of emotion and storytelling, in our politics and daily lives. As the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari has put it, in the modern world we exchanged meaning for power. But too many people feel they have lost meaning without acquiring power.
Questions of value underpin all these arguments. What is human worth? What is cultural worth? As Jonathan Sacks, the United Kingdom’s former chief rabbi, has complained, without God we have increasingly adopted a utilitarian and economic definition of human worth, and questions of meaning and value have been relegated to the private sphere.
One reason why the language and methods of cognitive assessment have swept all before it in recent years is because they appear to make selecting people fair and easy to measure. Indeed, one of the reasons for the academic drift in education is that it is easier to mark and measure written
tests than tests of manual skill or speaking ability.
This means that people with reasonable ability in writing skills and a university degree are often preferred even in forms of employment, such as a manager in a department store, suitable to someone with high social intelligence or so-called domain-specific skills derived from long experience of doing one thing.
Is a better balance between Head, Hand, and Heart achievable? Yes. Human norms and values lie behind the market signals of supply and demand, and they can change with surprising speed as we may witness in the aftermath of the Covid-19 crisis. In most European countries at least 40 percent of the economy is under direct or indirect public control (the figure is a bit less in the United States), and the corporate sector is sensitive to shifts in public attitudes and values. Consider the way in which environmental or gender equality concerns have impacted the business plans of big corporations in recent decades.
One of the forces driving change is political pressure from voters who don’t share the interests of the cognitive classes. And there are other trends that suggest the Head will soon face a more even contest with Hand and Heart.
A dystopian trend was suggested by American journalist Nicholas Carr in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
, in which he argued that we are all being made dumber by the Internet.13
Carr argued that sustained exposure to the Internet is reordering our synapses in ways that make us crave novelty and struggle to focus. This may bring improvements in some fields, but overall it means significant losses in linguistic facility, memory, and concentration.
Consider, too, that when people retire, they invariably engage in something embodied and rooted: a sport or a hobby that involves making something. Similarly, consider the centrality of sport and acting/singing celebrity in our public culture. Although these activities often require significant cognitive ability, they are rooted in Hand and Heart—closer to craft or artisanal skills than essay writing/analytical ability. And still a way out of the working class for men is the skilled physicality of becoming a sportsman, and for women it is beauty: the working-class schoolgirl spotted by the modeling agency or entering the world of stylists, high-end hairdressers, Instagram influencers, and so on.
In fact, human leisure, recreation, and ritual are almost all Hand and Heart based, though with significant aspects of Head too. Artisanal skills are also being rediscovered in some corners of the economy, especially in food and drink production, often by affluent young professionals.
Indeed, a shift away from Head and toward Hand and Heart seems to be programmed into many of the biggest social and economic trends: in the knowledge economy’s declining appetite for all but the most able knowledge workers; the growing concern for place and environmental protection, including more labor-intensive organic farming; and the inevitable expansion of care functions of various kinds in an aging society. These are trends that are likely to be reinforced by the Covid-19 crisis, which revealed that most of the “key workers” who support our daily lives were Hand and Heart workers, mainly people without university degrees.
There is one very big fact that modern politics will need to confront in the next decade. Political parties of both the center-left and center-right have taken as axiomatic that modern society will see a continuing expansion of secure, middle-class, professional graduate jobs. Both education and social mobility policy are based on this assumption. Yet it is almost certainly wrong.
The knowledge economy does not need an ever-growing supply of knowledge workers. (See Chapter Nine.) It still needs a top layer of the cognitively most able and original, but much of the work required of middle ranking professionals is already substantially routinized, a kind of digital Taylorism.
The American economist Paul Krugman spotted this back in 1996. Writing for the New York Times
but imagining himself looking back from one hundred years in the future, he saw that manipulating information was going to lose its value: “The long-ago prophets of the information age seem to have forgotten basic economics… A world awash in information is one in which information has very little market value. In general, when the economy becomes extremely good at doing something, that activity becomes less, rather than more, important.”14
According to the British academics Phillip Brown and Hugh Lauder, the proportion of jobs in big corporations requiring a significant application of cognitive skill and judgment is in sharp decline, with as few as 10 to 15 percent of staff having “permission to think.” And it is precisely the more routinized aspects of professional work in the law, accountancy, medicine, public administration, and so on that will in the near future be vulnerable to both artificial intelligence and to being exported to low-wage economies. It is much easier for an algorithm to replace a mid-level accountant than a garbage collector or a child-care giver.
This suggests that the rapid expansion of the traditional university sector over the past thirty years is likely to stop and go into reverse. Already in the United Kingdom nearly one-third of graduates are working in nongraduate jobs five years after graduating (the percentage is similar in the United States) and the graduate pay premium over those who don’t go to university is dwindling to almost nothing for young men from non-elite universities. The disappointment of a substantial section of young people who felt that they had been promised entry, via higher education, into a secure, high-status world of professional accomplishment is one of the factors behind Labour’s shift to the left in the United Kingdom and the Democrats’ shift to the left in the United States.
The neglect of higher Hand skills, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, will have to be reversed. Britain in the last two decades has overproduced general bachelor’s degrees and basic apprenticeships and neglected the technical skills that are still required to make the world function smoothly. In the United Kingdom this has partly been obscured by free movement of people from the EU, which has helped to plug the gap.
Similar trends are observable in the United States, though less so in continental Europe, especially in Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands, where employer-based vocational training remains strongly embedded. Even in Germany, however, there has been a sharp rise in university participation in the past decade.
Automation has been cutting mainly blue-collar jobs, but artificial intelligence is now coming for the more routinized end of professional jobs. The disruption experienced by relatively well-educated professionals could lead to a new sympathy for people performing Hand and Heart work, partly because many former accountants and lawyers will find themselves doing those jobs. The educated people who voted against populism will be far more open to reallocating status when automation has abolished their jobs, as Richard Baldwin predicts in The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work
At the same time, the pay, conditions, and training of Hand and Heart jobs are likely to improve because of the simple operation of supply and demand. And most of these everyday face-to-face service and care jobs, from car mechanic to mail deliverer and nursery nurse, cannot be exported or done by a robot.
Low-skill work is not, as widely predicted by economists, disappearing. In Gordon Brown’s penultimate budget speech as chancellor of the exchequer in 2006, he predicted there would be just 600,000 low-skill jobs in the United Kingdom by 2020. Depending on how one defines “low-skill,” there are likely to be at least 8 million low-skill jobs in the British economy next year.
Indeed, one of the explanations for the slowdown in productivity growth in rich economies in recent years, associated with the theory of economist William Baumol, is that workers no longer needed in the more automated sectors end up in low-productivity jobs. Or as the Economist
put it: “Technological progress pushes employment into the sectors most resistant to productivity growth. Eventually, nearly everyone may have jobs that are valued for their inefficiency: as concert musicians, or artisanal cheesemakers, or members of the household staff of the very rich.”15
Or, indeed, as medical staff in an intensive-care unit.
People will always be needed to clean offices, work in supermarkets and cafés, deliver things, work in fields, and fix your car and computer. Digital platforms like Amazon may be reducing jobs in shops, but they are creating them in warehouses and delivery firms. Some of these functions will be automated and some can be done by immigrants, allowing rich country workers to move up the employment chain. But given the unpopularity of large-scale immigration, especially in Europe, it makes more sense to try to make these jobs more attractive to national citizens.
There is an unavoidable element of drudgery to some of these roles, but if they are decently paid and people feel fairly managed, respected, and useful (as many delivery drivers and supermarket staff did during the Covid-19 crisis), they can provide sociable, purposive activity without necessarily providing meaning and identity in the way that professional jobs can—but people find meaning in other areas of life: family, sport, hobbies, and so on.
The final relevant trend—one that will surely raise the status of Heart work—is linked to two irreversible social facts: the increased numbers of older people, who will need significant levels of care in their final years—2020 is the first year in human history when the number of people over age sixty-five exceeds the number of children under age five—and the more prominent place of women in the public realm.
The #MeToo movement, which exposed the predatory behavior of men in the entertainment industry, politics, and elsewhere, didn’t happen thirty years ago because there were simply too few women in positions of authority in the media and politics.
One of the most important questions in developed countries over the next generation will be whether women’s greater political weight will be wielded to increase the limited market power of women now doing most Heart jobs. The women doing these jobs, many of whom work part-time or as agency staff, usually have strong obligations to those they care for, so they cannot easily apply pressure on those who employ them. Strikes by care home workers are rare.
Professional women have successfully de–gender segregated the upper end of the labor market in areas like medicine and law, but the middle and bottom end of the labor market remains highly gender segregated in most rich countries. Will the greater power of highly educated professional women in due course mean a $25-an-hour minimum wage in adult social care? Or are such professionals too detached from the interests of the kind of women who might be employed part-time in a nursing home?
The Anywhere, liberal professional worldview is public realm focused and tends to look down on domesticity. Yet it is hard to imagine an upward revaluation of care work in the public economy without valuing it more in the home, too, whether it is done by women or men. Britain and America are outliers among rich countries in their laissez-faire approach to support for families with children, and both experience high levels of family breakdown, one big factor behind the increase in deaths of despair in the United States.
Placing greater value on care, whether of young children or elderly parents, in the private realm raises the question of who does the caring. Many women feel, reasonably, that they already perform the burdensome “double shift” at work and home and want men to bear a fairer share of domestic care. This does seem to be happening, albeit rather slowly, but survey evidence in the United Kingdom also shows that most women with children would like to spend more time at home caring for preschool children if they could afford to, and work either part-time or not at all.16
And yet family and gender policy, especially in the United States and United Kingdom, focuses on making it as easy as possible for both parents to spend as little time as possible with their families
Every day in rich countries there are more hours spent caring, in its many forms, than in any other activity. And caring work is some of the most emotionally and physically draining labor of all. Yet as the writer Madeleine Bunting, author of Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care
, argues, the ethos of care does not sit easily with the ethos of an individualistic, achievement-driven society. Care, especially in the private realm, is about duty to others, and its results are sometimes nebulous and hard to measure. (See Chapter Eight.)
There is some potential for the use of smart technologies in elderly care, with more remote monitoring and so on (and this could draw more men into the sector). But most caring jobs cannot easily be automated or performed by machines. Even in aging Japan, with its antipathy to mass immigration, Filipino caregivers are preferred to robots and are gradually being welcomed in larger numbers.
The rise of cognitive-analytical ability—Head work—as a measure of economic and social success, combined with the hegemony of cognitive-class political interests, has led to the current great unbalancing of Western politics. The disaffection of large minorities, even majorities, in many countries is linked intimately to the declining status and self-respect attached to work associated with the Hand and the Heart.
Status is a slippery concept: it is both highly subjective—how we feel about ourselves and where we think we stand in the eyes of others—and objective: people in higher professional jobs (a surgeon, a lawyer) and celebrities of most kinds are almost universally recognized as having more of it. And status usually follows the money (with some exceptions, such as in the cases of priests or artists), although they can be more or less closely aligned at different times.
The substantial element of subjectivity in the concept of status makes it hard to measure the decline that I believe has been suffered by many people in postindustrial societies, although I have grappled with it in Chapter Seven.
Income inequality is easier to measure, and many people, especially on the left, find it more comfortable to focus on because it points the finger of blame at the rich and big business. But the preferences of the cognitive class—especially the “creative class” cohort in the arts and universities—for openness, autonomy, and change is also a source of discomfort and conflict.
There is a broad agreement in developed societies about the importance of individual freedom and social justice, although there is also fierce disagreement about the exact contours of both. There is much less consensus about cultural-psychological issues—the security, status, respect, and identity themes—that shape how people feel about themselves in daily life. For example, some people on the left would question whether it is legitimate for someone to feel discomforted by a neighborhood rapidly changed by immigration.
It is these psychological issues that cause so many people to feel unmoored from a sense of meaning and belonging—the same people who tell pollsters that the past was better than the present. A renewed respect for aptitudes connected to Hand and Heart as well as Head—a triumvirate instead of a cognitive meritocracy—is at least part of the answer to their discomfort.
Let’s aim for a society as open and mobile as possible but not restrict our political ambition to designing a better ladder up. Instead, our politics should place more emphasis on a wider spread of respect, dignity, and regard, and on offering a valued place to people who play by the rules but do not excel cognitively. We need, in other words, to treat people democratically. It is an adjustment our democracies are now demanding. I
. This was placed in the spotlight in early 2019 when overt corruption, including getting other people to take applicants’ exams, was uncovered by the US Department of Justice to get undeserving candidates into top colleges, including Yale and Stanford.