Monday 18 November 2013

The over-promoted society versus the over-competent society


We live in an over-promoted society

And the basic reason for this is a two-fold consequence of the industrial revolution:

1. The industrial revolution led to a rapid increase in economic productivity which led to increased per-capita wealth, reducing mortality rates (especially childhood mortality) and driving an expansion of the population.

2.  The reduction on childhood mortality differentially applied to the children of the poorest, least intelligent, least hard-working, most impulsive, sickest - i.e. the least 'fit' in biological terms; such that after a few generations reproductive success became almost entirely a matter of fertility; and the wealthiest, most intelligent, hardest-working, most diligent and healthiest used modern technology to reduce their fertility to significantly sub-replacement levels.


Therefore, at the same time as economic opportunities were expanding (due to increasing productivity) the abilities of the population were declining - resulting in a double-whammy of over-promotion.

Offspring generations who were less cognitively competent than their parents generation (and, offspring who were indeed, on average, less cognitively competent than their own parents - due to the accumulation of deleterious mutations) - would nonetheless end-up working in a job requiring greater cognitive competence than their parents.

Such that there has been a perceptible decline in the competence of each functional stratum of complexity to make the over-promoted society in which we live - a society where (for instance) people who would make a poor-quality mid-level bureaucrat are actually allocated to jobs requiring a high-quality high-level bureaucrat.

And of course they can't do the jobs, so the jobs are either done badly or simplified towards a level where they can be done adequately - by enforcing routinization, protocols, strict procedures and the like.


In the Middle Ages the situation was the opposite - the Middle Ages was an over-competent society.

Most of the children who survived to adulthood were children of the middle and upper classes - yet there were insufficient social niches at their parents' level for them to occupy, since there was essentially a fixed number of positions at each occupational level: a fixed number of Priests, clerks, merchants, skilled craftsmen etc. - and any expansion of their numbers would simply suppress their standard of living.

Only a very small proportion of the children of the lowest classes, the mass of peasants, would survive to adulthood. (I will leave out the small number of landed aristocracy from this analysis.)

This meant that there was continual net downward-mobility; with the children of the skilled middle class necessarily going down the social scale to become low-skill or unskilled landless farmers, serfs, peasants and the like.

Since cognitive ability and personality is mostly hereditary; consequently, people at each each social stratum tended to be over-competent for the jobs they did - in cognitive terms they could easily master their jobs, and could have worked at a higher level - but could not do so because there were no available occupational niches.


This was the world up to about 1800. A world in which there was more talent than could be used. Where almost everybody could easily master their job.

There was no point in training or educating more people for skilled middle class jobs, because these jobs could not be expanded - there were as many people in skilled jobs as was 'needed' (i.e. as many as could be paid for).

This was a society of great demand for education from the over-competent lower orders, where the ploughboy or shepherd could be a great poet, of hunger for books and information, where there was great scriptural and devotional knowledge and long complex sermons in church, a society of mutual and self-education, and one of widespread 'home schooling' (there was a high level of home taught literacy in England long before there were many schools).


After the Industrial Revolution suddenly there was more money, more food, more resources - and there was all this over-competent talent apparently 'trapped' in the lower orders.

And this was the world in which socialism emerged - socialism in its earliest form of a meritocracy of the talents; a society in which the highest positions would be open to those of ability as well as (or instead of) to those of noble birth; socialism as in essence a facilitating of the movement from the middle to upper class; but also - and increasingly - rationalized by facilitating the movement from lower to middle classes.


But now, a century and a half down the line - or more - we have a very different world in which there is no problem of talent trapped in the lower orders, but rather of a generalized deficiency in the kind of abilities necessary to renew, sustain and run the kind of complex society we have inherited; and in which there is a continual dumbing-down of public discourse and educational standards, rampant cheating in exams that are anyway undiscriminating with respect to intelligence, widespread lack of enthusiasm/  resistance to education - and all the rest of it.

This (and more) is the result of the transition from an over-competent to an over-promoted society; ultimately driven by demographic change combined with a reversal of the direction of natural selection from advantaging greater 'fitness' to lesser fitness...

Or, more exactly, a change in the nature of the 'fitness' that it has selected to such an extent that modern biological fitness - meaning those traits which reproductively are advantaged - is almost the opposite of what fitness was 400 years ago.



dearieme said...

If you are right, and I suspect you are, not only is there a shortage of competence, but we live in an aether of viscous glues, that might almost be designed to gum up any chance of competent people being able to display their competence.

I suspect that the answer is simply to ignore those glues, but that only supremely confident and economically important outfits - such as the firms in Silicon Valley - can get away with it.

Samson J. said...

This is a topic of great fascination to me, having as I do a great interest in genealogy and family history - my own, of course, but I usually find it interesting to hear about other peoples', too. My parents did a fair amount of research into family history, so we have a quite a few stories gathered up about my great-grandparents, their parents, etc.

One of the things I find striking about a few of those stories is that more than one of my ancestors grew up in lower-class circumstances and transitioned to a more cerebral, middle-class job. In fact I seem to recall a story that one of my great-grandfathers was a manual labourer who was told by his boss to "get outta here and go to college" (which he did, BTW) because he was caught doing creative writing at work!

I find it very interesting that really, this effect persisted into the post-WWII era or so. It was still possible for a baby boomer, for instance, to "better" his circumstances by obtaining education appropriate to his intellect. Today this class mobility is much less common, partly for the reasons outlined in the OP. It's a big change.

Ingemar said...

I would very much like to hear the rest of Samson J's greatgrandfather's story.

dearieme said...

@Samson: It was a recognised pattern in 18th and 19th century Britain that a bright boy from a poor background would be identified as very able, and directed into a promising profession - sometimes a local bigwig would pay for education for the lad.

For instance, Captain Cook, the last of the great navigators: "In 1736, his family moved to Airey Holme farm at Great Ayton, where his father's employer, Thomas Skottowe, paid for him to attend the local school." (WKPD)

Or consider Wullie Robertson: "Field Marshal Sir William Robert Robertson, 1st Baronet, ... Chief of the Imperial General Staff ('CIGS' - professional Head of the British Army) from 1916 to 1918, during the First World War." He was a village lad who became a manservant in a Big House: he was told that he was too able for that career; it was suggested he join the army. He signed up as a private, became an NCO and "Encouraged by his officers, and the clergyman of his old parish, he passed an examination for an officer's commission and was posted as a second lieutenant in the 3rd Dragoon Guards on 27 June 1888. Normally only four or five rankers were commissioned each year at that time."

Samson J. said...

I would very much like to hear the rest of Samson J's greatgrandfather's story.

I'm afraid I don't know too much more about it - I'm sorry about that, would gladly have shared. What I recall is that he was working in a coal mine, got caught writing on the side of coal carts, and eventually became a clergyman.