14 February 2002


“ Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupations and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no overall inequalities of the sort we have got used to.”
Michael Young, Lord Young of Dartington

Michael Young 1915-2002
Social Entrepreneur

Michael Young, one of Britain’s foremost social entrepreneurs, has died aged 86. Lord Young of Dartington leaves behind dozens of institutions and charities which he either was founder, or played a major hand in creating —including the Consumers Association and the Open University. He was an innovative and progressive thinker in political and social policy. At the end of World War II, at the early age of 29, he drafted the 1945 Labour Party manifesto “Let Us Face The Future”, which helped bring Atlee’s reforming Labour government to power.

Young chose not to go into politics himself, but instead marked out an innovative path for himself in social research and community enterprise. He was once described as a shaman who sowed “dragons teeth”, then moved on while great organisations sprung up in his stead. When interviewed by the author Charles Handy in 1999, he simply remarked: “I can’t stop thinking of what appear to be worthwhile ideas. They seem so obvious.”

His many dragon seeds have included starting the Advisory Centre for Education, which provided information on education issues (1960); the National Consumer Council (1975); the University of the Third Age, or U3A (1982); the Open College of the Arts, which taught practical arts by correspondence (1987); the National Association for the Education of Sick Children (1993); a Family Covenant Association, for promoting a secular form of Baptism (1994); and the School for Social Entrepreneurs (1998).

Young often turned personal experience into new opportunities for social action. While in hospital with cancer, he devised the idea of the College of Health (and with his sense of provocative fun, he originally called it the Association of Trained Patients). While organising the funeral of his wife, he saw the need to improve the training of funeral directors, and so he established the National Funerals College. When he discovered that Bengali patients at the London Hospital were unable to explain to doctors what was wrong with them he launched a telephone exchange offering instant translation services. His energy seemed unstoppable, and even into his late seventies he was publishing books and creating even more organisations.


  • Young’s views on education were often controversial, and heavily influenced by his time spent as a young man at the alternative school at Dartington Hall. The school was based on the philosophy of Rousseau who held the belief that all children were born gifted in one way or another and needed only to be fed and watered, like plants, for their gifts to grow.

    In his later years, Young proposed that schools, instead of educating the young, should become “living laboratories for research” with the research being carried out by pupils and teachers alike, with parents allowed in to help. He also proposed an “Open School”, which pupils could leave at any time after the end of their primary schooling, after which they would be asked to learn at home, or at work under supervision at something socially useful, until they felt the need to go back to more formal schooling.


  • In 1958, Young wrote a bestseller in which he invented the term “meritocracy”. The Rise of the Meritocracy was a satirical history of British Society from 1870 to 2033, and argued that the modern school system established a pecking order which was even more divisive than the old class system — because it divided people by IQ instead of by wealth.

    His view was that a meritocracy simply produced a change in the pattern of inequality ... yet in the end, a fundamentally unequal society remains. He believed there are certain human rights that shouldn’t be distributed on the basis of merit. These include health care, education and police protection ... which today are much more easily available to the rich.

    Young had meant the term “meritocracy” to point towards an undesirable elitism. But many political leaders, such as current British PM Tony Blair, seem to have never read the book or failed to realise it was a satire, and continued to give speeches advocating the meritocracy as a good thing. Last year, Young wrote an article in the Guardian saying he wished Tony Blair would stop using the word.

    Young explained: “It is good sense to appoint individual people to jobs on their merit. It is the opposite when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new social class without room in it for others.”

    “Ability of a conventional kind, which used to be distributed between the classes more or less at random, has become much more highly concentrated by the engine of education. A social revolution has been accomplished by harnessing schools and universities to the task of sieving people according to education’s narrow band of values. “

    “With an amazing battery of certificates and degrees at its disposal, education has put its seal of approval on a minority, and its seal of disapproval on the many who fail to shine from the time they are relegated to the bottom streams ...”

    Young argued that the elite, in a meritocracy, tend to feel they are much more entitled to the privileges they enjoy. This breeds a dangerous arrogance. Young: “They believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancement comes from their own merits, and they deserve whatever they can get. They can be insufferably smug, much more so than the people who knew they had achieved advancement not on their own merit but because they were, as somebody’s son or daughter, the beneficiaries of nepotism. The newcomers can actually believe they have morality on their side ...”

    Conversely, the underclass in a meritocracy is made to feel more deserving of their misfortune. This breeds hopelessness. Young: “It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that.”


  • In a speech “Equality and Public Service” published in September 2000 by the Fabian Society (, Michael Young re-stated his egalitarian vision:

    “Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and their education, their occupations and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there would be no overall inequalities of the sort we have got used to. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant to the lorry-driver with unusual skills at growing roses?

    “A pluralistic society would also be a tolerant society, in which individual differences were actively encouraged as well as passively tolerated, in which full meaning was at last given to the dignity of man. Every human being would then have equal opportunity to develop his or her own special capacities for leading a full life which is also a noble life led for the benefit of others as well as the self.”

    — “Equality and Public Service” Speech to Sociology Section, British Association for the Advancement of Science, 11 September 2000 by Michael Young (Published by the Fabian Society full paper available on the internet at

    Michael Young
    — Social Entrepreneur
    by Asa Briggs
    (pub 2001 by St. Martin's Press)
    ISBN 0333750233

    available from

    Sources — The Guardian 29 June 2001 “Down with Meritocracy” by Michael Young; The Observer 27 May 2001 “The Dream Maker” by Toby Young; the Telegraph 16 January 2002 “Lord Young of Dartington” Obituary; The Guardian 16 January 2002 “Action Man” by Toby Young; The Guardian 24 January 2002 “Social reformer in FDR’s image” by Malcolm Dean; BBC News 16 January 2002 “Lord Young — will his legacy last?”; Interview with Charles Handy in “The New Alchemists — How Visionary People Make Something Out of Nothing” (pub Hutchinson 1999); “Equality and Public Service” Speech by Michael Young published by the Fabian Society


  • The Jobs Research Trust — a not-for-profit charitable trust constituted in 1994.
    We are funded by sustaining grants and donations. Yes, you can help.