I remember my first job out of university. I remember the way my tights scratched against the seats on the District Line, the Pret sandwiches I ate at my desk, the time eked out in the steel and glass bathroom, the feeling of elation when Friday rolled round and the sense of imprisonment when the weekend inevitably gave way to Monday morning. Of the job itself, I recall very little. Probably because I had no idea what I was meant to be doing and probably because the reality would never have lived up to the idea, formed imperfectly through a mixture of Working Girl meets Sex in the City meets This Life.
BBC 2’s new drama Industry, which follows a group of graduate trainees in a London investment bank, captures the youthful dystopia and confusion of the first job drip by drip like an expensive Americano drunk on a hangover. But beyond the salads and the coffees al desko, the taxis and the drugs, the series hints at something far more fundamental: the fact that meritocracy, as an idea and a practice, is broken. So broken in fact, you might struggle to recognise it at all, were it not for the fact that the protagonist Harper decrees in her interview at Pierpoint that she considers banking “the closest thing to a meritocracy”.
As an idea, meritocracy is modern. Coined in 1958 by British sociologist and politician Michael Young, meritocracy originally meant IQ combined with effort. These days, its acolytes understand it to be the mysterious alchemy of academic ability combined with nebulous personal attributes such as leadership, community-mindedness and accessory talents such as sporting excellence or anything group-led. Drink the kool-aid and you believe that these are the qualities that will secure you a graduate internship at a bank like Pierpoint. Attributes peripheral to cold, hard merit such as schooling, looks, family money, gender or sexuality have nothing to do with it. So we are told.
Industry flirts with the concept of meritocracy before swiping right, consigning it to the ether like the dating profiles the characters gawp at when they’re meant to be looking at the Bloomberg screen. Initially, the graduates we follow seem to be the happy beneficiaries of meritocracy’s midas touch. Black, Asian, working-class, Old Etonian, Oxbridge, disadvantaged, all find themselves on the level playing-field of merit, tabulating personal profits and losses for which they alone are accountable.
But like the numbers moving above their heads on the trading floor there’s a different narrative circulating. The Old Etonians hold the floor at the lavish client dinner while the working-class boy-done-good gets ridiculed for his suit. Examples abound, not least the death of the working-class Asian, Hari from exhaustion at the end of the first episode.
This is, without doubt, a gloomy diagnosis of meritocracy’s discontents; one in which our education plays an outsized role in our lives, making us believe in the idea of merit before anything else, pushing us towards inauthentic ambitions and unhappy lives sacrificed at the altar of finance and management consultancy. Lives spent gulping coffees and formatting powerpoint presentations.
The consequences, as Young predicted, are complicated. Are the characters in Industry, who belong to meritocracy’s upper class happy in their high tower? It doesn’t look like it. They seem to spend most of their time drinking, drugging, and shagging their way around London in an attempt to numb themselves from the unhappy reality of their victory in the merit match.
I never would have got the job at Pierpoint, although I’m sure the idea would have appealed to my younger self. Watching Industry makes me feel quite glad that I wouldn’t have cut it. Apart from anything else, I’m terrible at remembering coffee orders and I’ve never been anywhere near an office gym.