When I finished my studies, a girlfriend – a wicked smart girl who had just started her PhD – asked me to ghostwrite her thesis for her. She wanted to organize the material and tell me a few of her ideas. I should be the one doing the writing part. “You’re much better at writing, anyways”, she said.
This request seemed strange to me at the time. Why did she feel the need to write a dissertation when she knew that writing wasn’t one of her strong points? Now I know that requests like these are not that unusual. They are just an effect of the society we live in.
Living in a Meritocracy
Our society has often been called an “achievement-oriented society” or meritocracy. By definition this means that power should be based on intellectual talent measured through examination. Our achievements affect our career opportunities and our income possibilities. (Or at least that’s what we like to think.) As a result, we live in a society that condones failure and idealizes success.
But it hasn’t always been this way. When did everybody become so obsessed with being the best?
“Nowadays there is no guarantee for full-time employment anymore. There are no assured career prospects anymore either. There are less jobs and the number of competent competitors is increasing. We often underestimate the role luck plays. In light of these insecurities we easily run the risk of establishing our world as a hamster wheel and becoming an over-performer”, says Alexander Bogner, professor of sociology at the University of Vienna.
In addition, we experience processes of acceleration. Our daily life becomes quicker due to technological progress. We still have to learn to adapt to those changes. At the same time we experience processes of de-traditionalization. “We are more and more required to make decisions, that might not have been necessary in the past, because we were controlled by routines or by traditions”, says Bogner.
The achievement-oriented society has long become our reality. But where will this kind of thinking lead us?
So far it seems to have led us to a society that is increasingly inclined to cheat. Plagiarism in universities is on the rise. Professor Gerhard Fröhlich, University of Linz, even stated that we live in a “bluff society“. When we fear that we won’t be capable of performing well, we tend to pretend. “We cannot guide our careers. This partially results in aimless and pointless activity. The main point is that it looks like you are doing something“, explains Bogner.
Another effect of this development is the devalued status of academic degrees. A Master’s degree no longer holds the same academic capital as it used to. Some people blindly collect academic qualifications because they might be useful in the future. “We realize: these degrees guarantee nothing. This makes people obtain university degrees on spec.”, says Bogner. “There’s an inflation of academic degrees. At the same time those degrees are losing their value.”
More Than Ever, Hour After, Our Work Is Never Over
To compensate the devaluation of academic degrees, students try to earn as much extracurricular credit as they can possibly get. Instead of “just studying”, we are trying to differentiate ourselves from our competitors by doing lots and lots of internships. “Twenty-five years ago it was out of the ordinary when someone did an internship. Someone was especially motivated or they already knew what organization they wanted to work for”, explains Bogner. “Today the opposite is true: you are seen as an escapist if your CV doesn’t contain a list of internships.“
As there is a great demand for internships, companies often don’t need to pay much. Still, for many students internships are a great way to gain experience. Sinah Edhofer, a young blogger whose blog post about exploitation during internships went viral, is one of them. “I always had survival jobs. I worked at an organization and earned enough money to afford the next internship”, she says.
Sinah sees the achievement-oriented society we live in partly as a problem of her generation. “In my opinion, our generation has a lot of fear and very low self-esteem“, she says. “By being exposed to so much media, we are intimidated. We are the generation that is hit by so many impressions. Many then think: Shit, I will never get a job. I have to take any internship I can get.”
The Generation Y is known to be a generation that expects a lot – in particular when it comes to their career. A job is not a way to earn money, but a means of self-realization. This can easily lead to over-performing. “You want to make a good impression. This is also a vicious circle: you give it your all and work yourself into the ground because you hope that someone sees how hard you are trying”, says Sinah. “This might not be healthy in the long run.”
The young blogger, who is aiming for a career in media, has personally experienced the negative effects of the constant pressure to achieve. “In the past few years my social contacts have frequently been neglected. In my circle of friends, we then tell one another that we have the feeling someone is drifting away and working too much.”
Of course, there are counter-movements like the de-growth movement or the deceleration movement, but according to sociologist Bogner the need for achievement will be increasing in the future. “Achievement by itself is not negative. But it elicits certain connotations: that the demands of achievement sky rocket and that we won’t be able to keep pace.”
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