My friends Patrick and Margot gave me a paperback of Mikhail Lermontov’s 1840 novel A Hero of Our Time, translated by Paul Foote.
Reading the introduction, I was struck by the similarity between the idea of the protagonists of Russian novels from this period as “superfluous men” “set apart by their superior talents from the mediocre society in which they were born, but doomed to waste their lives, partly through lack of opportunity to fulfil themselves, though also, in most cases, because they themselves lacked any real sense of purpose or strength of will” and the notion of “elite overproduction” recently discussed in The Economist and elsewhere.
The introduction quotes the Russian literary critic Belinsky explaining how the Byronic protagonists of the novels of this period must be “characterized either by decisive inaction, or else by futile activity.”
Defining their term, The Economist says:
Elite overproduction can also help explain the malaise gripping the rich world of late. It has become extraordinarily difficult for a young person to achieve elite status, even if she works hard and goes to the best university. House prices are so high that only inheritors stand a chance of emulating the living conditions of their parents. The power of a few “superstar” firms means that there are few genuinely prestigious jobs around. Mr Turchin reckons that each year America produces some 25,000 “surplus” lawyers. Over 30% of British graduates are “overeducated” relative to their jobs.
These two related concepts seem to illustrate some of the pathologies of our partly-meritocratic but also increasingly oligarchic society, where one-time educational status markers are being eroded through a race for credentials which democratizes participation but leaves everyone who succeeds with less distinction. People who generations ago would have ended their educational careers bored out of their brains and doing the absolute minimum in high school now seem to frequently add on four more years of the same in college, hoping for but less and less in a position to expect social status and economic security as a result.