People have a very wrong idea about 'meritocracy'. They view it as a singularity in space/time when it is actually a pyramid. It is true that there is room for one at the top, but there is more room for those in the middle, and there's lots more room for those at the bottom. Thus, it is like any other form of social stratification except for the opportunity for one to transcend one's strata and advance to a higher one.
Which is where the problem is. Everybody feels pressured to clamber up the pyramid to get the tippy-top space at the apex as quickly as possible. If it's too difficult they blame the system for being unfair when, in fact, it's just physics: no two physical bodies can occupy the same space at the same time. The people at the top can't reach down and pull you up without sacrificing one of their own, so don't expect that to happen any time soon.
The rational thing to do is to recognize where one is in space and maneuver oneself upwards over time. So how does one get up to the top? The other mistake that people make is to work harder because they somehow believe that there's a cosmic principle or something that rewards hard work. So people work, but eventually they get stressed out, disillusioned, and hate everything when they stagnate at a level below their expectations.
Notice that the people at the top are the ones who get other people to work for them? If you're working very hard, you're probably working for someone above you. You're not going to impress them by showing them how hard you are working. The harder you work, the more important it is for them to keep you where you are because you get work done for them. What will impress them is how well you get others to do your work for you. That will give you time to smarten up, and not look so harried while getting your job done. That will prove you are ready for the next higher tier up the pyramid.
We don't need a 'compassionate meritocracy' -- a contradiction in terms if you ask me. Remember: the dairy principle that 'cream rises to the top' trumps the cosmic principle that promises 'rewards for hard work' every time. To get ahead, you only have to beat yourself.