I don’t think this alteration just reflects a darkening vision of the wider world, a fear of climate change or Donald Trump. It also reflects a transformation within the meritocracy itself — a sense in which, since 2001, the system has consistently been asking more of ladder climbers and delivering less as its reward.
The scholar Peter Turchin of the University of Connecticut, whose work on the cycles of American history may have predicted this year’s unrest, has a phrase that describes part of this dynamic: the “overproduction of elites.” In the context of college admissions that means exactly what it sounds like: We’ve had a surplus of smart young Americans pursuing admission to a narrow list of elite colleges whose enrollment doesn’t expand with population, even as foreign students increasingly compete for the same stagnant share of slots.
Then, having run this gantlet, our meritocrats graduate into a big-city ecosystem where the price of adult goods like schools and housing has been bid up dramatically, while important cultural industries — especially academia and journalism — supply fewer jobs even in good economic times. And they live half in these crowded, over-competitive worlds and half on the internet, which has extended the competition for status almost infinitely and weakened some of the normal ways that local prestige might compensate for disappointing income.
These stresses have exposed the thinness of meritocracy as a culture, a Hogwarts with SATs instead of magic, a secular substitute for older forms of community, tradition or religion. For instance, it was the frequent boast of Obama-era liberalism that it had restored certain bourgeois virtues — delayed childbearing, stable marriages — without requiring anything so anachronistic as Christianity or courtship rituals. But if your bourgeois order is built on a cycle of competition and reward, and the competition gets fiercer while the rewards diminish, then instead of young people hooking up safely on the way to a lucrative job and a dual-income marriage with 2.1 kids, you’ll get young people set adrift, unable to pair off, postponing marriage permanently while they wait for a stability that never comes.
Which brings us to the subject invoked in this column’s title — the increasing appeal, to these unhappy young people and to their parents and educators as well, of an emergent ideology that accuses many of them of embodying white privilege, and of being “fragile,” in the words of the now-famous anti-racism consultant Robin DiAngelo, if they object or disagree.