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The Social Construction Talent: A Comparative Study of Education, Recruitment and Occupational Elites


Phillip Brown, Sally Power, Gerbrand Tholen, School of Social Sciences, Cardiff University. and Anabelle Allouch, Sciences Po, Paris.

There are few ideas that have generated such a wide international consensus than the global knowledge economy. The more technically advanced the economy the more the skills, knowledge and talents of the whole workforce come to matter in shaping the economic competitiveness of nations. Equally, extending opportunities for all to access higher education is viewed as a primary source of economic competitiveness and social justice.

In these terms the shift towards a post-industrial or knowledge economy is believed to draw education, employment and rewards into an ever closer alliance to achieve both efficiency and social justice. This is based on a human capital model of ‘learning equals earning’ that holds out the prospect of reducing income inequalities as people acquire marketable skills to close the gap on those already in well paid jobs.


Human Capital and the War for Talent

There has, however, been a subtle but important shift in the way the knowledge economy has been understood in relation to education, jobs and rewards. Some business consultants, most notably at McKinsey, have argued that while the knowledge economy increases the value of ideas, insights and expertise, it also increases the demand for outstanding talent (that remain in short supply) rather than well qualified university graduates.

This requires companies to differentiate employees in terms of performance alongside technical knowledge, and to reward ‘top talent’ a lot more than the rest. Richard Florida presents a similar argument in suggesting that attracting the best creative talent has become central to the competitive advantage of nations. Companies and governments are encouraged to paid more attention to the way they attract, select and retain talent, which is assumed to be much more important than investing in vast ranks of university graduates.

At the same time there is also mounting evidence that higher education is not reaping the individual benefits that many expected; that social mobility rates (at least in Britain and America) have flat-lined if not declined; and that income inequalities are widening within occupational groups such as managers, lawyers, and university academics. This has led to more intense competition for the ‘best’ schools, colleges, universities and employers.

These trends raise far-reaching policy and theoretical issues about education, employment and income inequalities. To what extent does the emphasis on talented performance mark a shift from established notions of meritocratic achievement based the competition for credentials? To what extent does it signal a shift in organisational paradigms, reshaping elite occupational careers and rewards? What are the implications of these changes for our understanding of social and economic (re)production and social justice?


Need for a Comparative Framework

Brown and Power have published widely on the issue of education and the recruitment of occupational elites. While this work is of value, recent events including the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent economic recession have led many companies to reduce their head count and target HR as an area for ‘strategic cost reduction’. The impact of which is yet to be assessed.

Moreover, recent research by Brown and Lauder, focused on the global skill formation strategies of transnational companies, also highlighted the importance of a comparative framework for analysis. As barriers separating national labour markets crumble, along with growing evidence of the globalisation of higher education (including alliances between elite national institutions), questions of education and occupational elites can no longer be confined to the national context. 

To what extent has there been a ‘flattening’ or ‘convergence’ across national systems? More specifically, the rhetoric of the ‘war for talent’ conforms to a neo-liberal view of market individualism, flexible job markets, and shareholder value. Therefore, is there evidence of a convergence across nations such as Britain and France, that have traditionally been researched to highlight the ‘varieties of capitalism’.  

Aims of Project

  • To investigate the relationship between ‘talent’ and ‘meritocracy’ as understood by university students and leading employers;
  • To assess whether ‘talent’ is understood, nurtured and rewarded differently in Britain and France;
  • To examine the relationship between education and the recruitment of elites from a comparative perspective
  • To contribute to the development of new concepts and theoretical insights required to account for the changing relationship between education, jobs and rewards in cross-national perspective.
  • To undertake a comparative study of the social construction of ‘talent’;


Pilot Project

The current pilot project will consist of:

1/ A background conceptual/theoretical analysis aimed at explaining the rhetoric of the ‘war for talent’ and it relationship to existing accounts of class reproduction through education and the elite job market.

2/ A background paper contrasting the social structure of competition in both Britain and France. This will focus on the articulation between education, employment and the elite labour market. It will also highlight key ‘pressure points’ confronting the middle classes in each country.

3/ Fieldwork will be undertaken with 10 leading employers of university graduates (five in each country), recruiting into the civil service, consultancy and financial services. This will focus on the way they understand talent/talent management. It will examine how they attempt to attract, recruit and retain talent. It will also examine how they interact with higher education to secure their talent supply and how they target specific universities when recruiting to elite positions.

4/ Fieldwork will also be undertaken with 40 final year undergraduates aiming for elite careers (20 in each country). These interviews at top ranking universities in both countries will investigate how graduates understand the competition for a livelihood and its relationship to meritocracy, talent and income inequalities. It will also examine their perceptions of higher education and it relationship to elite (re)production.


Background Publications

2010  The Global Auction: The Broken Promises of Education, Jobs and Rewards, Brown, P., Lauder, H. and Ashton, D.,  New York: Oxford University Press, pp.224.

2009 Education, Meritocracy and the Global War for Talent, Journal of Education Policy, 24,4, 377-92, Brown, P. and Tannock, S.

2009 ‘Globalization, International Education, and the Formation of a Transnational Class?, in F.Rizvi and T.Popkewitz (Eds.) Globalization and the Study of Education, Yearbook of the National Soceity for the Study  of Education, (NSSE), Chicago: Blackwell. Brown, P. and Lauder, H.

2008 Graduating and gradations within the middle class: the legacy of an elite higher education, Paper 118, Cardiff School of Social Sciences. Power, S and Whitty G.

2006 Education and the Middle Class: a Complex but Crucial Case for the Sociology of Education, Education, Globalization and Social Change (Lauder, H., Brown, P., Dillabough, J. and Halsey, A.H. eds) Oxford University Press, Oxford. Power S and Whitty G, 

2006 Success Sustained? A Follow-Up Study of the ‘Destined for Success’ Cohort’, Research Papers in Education, 21, 3 pp 235-53. Power S, Whitty, G. and Edwards, T, 

2006 The Opportunity Trap, in Lauder, et al. (Eds.) Education, Globalization and Social Change, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.381-97. Brown, P.

2004 The MisManagement of Talent: Employability and Jobs in the Knowledge Economy, P.Brown and A.Hesketh. Oxford University Press . More...

2003 Education and the Middle Class, Buckingham, Open University Press pp 192. Power S, Edwards, T., Whitty, G. and Wigfall, V.