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.