The Lottery Of Life

Seventeenth instalment - the vicious spiral of luck

Here is the bad news: as illustrated above in the context of poverty, an individual’s luck – whether good or bad – tends to feed on itself.

Those with good luck – in terms of well-nourished and wealthy parents, favourable genetic inheritance, and problem-free gestation and birth – will usually find that as they grow and age they are helped along and lifted up by other elements of good fortune: a stimulating home environment, better than adequate nutrition, a superior education, an increasing sense of self-worth and self-confidence, access to networks of other people similarly blessed with good luck – and so on. They will float through life on a self-propagating magic carpet of good luck.

Those with bad luck – with poor, perhaps under-nourished parents; conceived perhaps with DNA that dictates a physical or mental disability, or lower than average intelligence, or a form of neurodivergence, or unfavourable behavioural or emotional tendencies; born into an environment lacking in stimulus, space to play, perhaps even lacking in enough food – those people are likely to find that bad luck and trouble, as the song has it, are their only friends. By the time they start school they will already be behind their good-luck peers. They will also be smaller and less robust. They will do less well in school, and go on to find less well-paid and enjoyable work. At every stage their sense of self-worth will be diminished.

As Jarvis Cocker tells a wealthy fellow student in the song ‘Common People’:

You’ll never live like common people
You’ll never do whatever common people do
You’ll never fail like common people
You’ll never watch your life slide out of view
And dance and drink and screw
Because there’s nothing else to do

Or as Philip Larkin points out, on the subject of the influence of parents, in his poem ‘This Be The Verse’:

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.

However, you might ask: is this not a spiral that is vicious in some cases but virtuous in others? My answer is: no, it isn’t. Those born with good luck are told, throughout their lives, that their good fortune is the result of ‘you’re a clever child’, ‘you’ve worked so hard for this’, ‘we’ve promoted you entirely on merit’ and sundry other similar untruths. It is not surprising that they become convinced that their good fortune – their privileged situation – is in some way deserved. And if I am comfortably off, and contented, and am convinced that I have earnt my wealth and contentment; then if you are poor and unhappy then I can only conclude that you, also, have earnt your poverty and misery. You deserve it.

And that is an opinion that is unjustified, mean-spirited, corrosive of a fair society, and just plain wrong.

I will return – with some vehemence – to this point in a later instalment of this blog.

Now then. I’m sure you’d like me to adduce some evidence in support of my vicious spiral contention. Fortunately there is no shortage of such material. I will pull extracts from just two of the cornucopia of articles that can be found on the internet: the first sets out the way in which the world heaps disadvantage on the already disadvantaged; the second discusses one way in which those who start out privileged become increasingly so.

Breaking the Intergenerational Cycle of Disadvantage: The Three Generation Approach
Pediatrics, June 2016

Children are the most likely sector of the US population to live in poverty. Poverty in early childhood is directly related to a child’s adult earnings, occupational productivity, use of public benefits, and risk of health conditions, such as cardio-metabolic disease and arthritis, which limit adult work. Multigenerational legacies of racism, segregation, and systematic economic disenfranchisement particularly disadvantage poor families of color and limit economic mobility and opportunity. Children raised in poverty often fail to accumulate the “health capital” that facilitates later educational attainment, peer relationships, and ability to parent, all of which contribute substantially to LCHD and transmission of health risk across generations. . . . a child born to poor parents is likely to remain poor as an adult and, if he or she becomes a parent, to raise poor children.

The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged
Social Forces, August 2020

The authors find that elite occupations are dominated by workers from privileged (i.e., upper-middle-class) families and that those inequalities cannot be explained by “merit” alone. Rather, even when holding constant educational attainment, educational pedigree (i.e., having attended elite schools), and educational achievement, people from working-class backgrounds are still less likely than people from more privileged backgrounds to have elite occupations. Those class-based barriers to entry are especially high for women, people with disabilities, and people who are Black, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi.

I am also very taken with this academic paper, which provides evidence that the privileged are those least able to recognise their advantages.

Deflecting Privilege: Class Identity and the Intergenerational Self
Sociology, 2021

There is also a growing body of work demonstrating that within such high-status occupations, it is those from privileged class origins that appear to have a particular advantage in both getting in and getting on (Hällsten, 2013; Rivera, 2012). As Friedman and Laurison (2019) show, only 10% of those from working-class backgrounds make it into Britain’s higher professional and managerial occupations and, even when they do, go on to earn 16% less than their colleagues from more privileged backgrounds. Yet despite the significant advantages enjoyed by those from middle-class backgrounds, there is strong evidence that such individuals tend to downplay (Sherman, 2017), misrecognise (Khan, 2011) or elide (Brook et al., 2019) such privilege. Indeed, it is these individuals who tend to believe most strongly that ‘hard work’ is the key determinant of career success (Mijs, 2019) and are least likely to acknowledge the role of coming from a privileged background.

There is a well-known illustration known as the circle of privilege. It has many versions, but they all look rather like this:

As you can see, this version relates specifically to the United States. If I were redesigning it for the UK I think I would remove the pie-slices for political affiliation and religion. However I’m sure you can see that almost all of the categories are applicable almost everywhere.

I must stress that privilege, as graphically illustrated in the above diagram, is not quite the same thing as my concept of luck. The diagram, for instance, cannot convey the way in which both good and bad luck tend to accumulate during a lifetime. Nonetheless it is interesting to note that many of the pie-slices – sexuality, gender, body size, skin colour, neurodiversity, mental health, physical ability – are determined wholly or largely by an individual’s genetic inheritance; and that many of the remainder – wealth, education, housing, transportation, citizenship, employment, language – are the kinds of factors that, for good or bad, more or less, better or worse, accrue to a person depending in large part on his or her luck at birth. Privilege, or its counterpart disadvantage, is, then, a snapshot: at whatever stage in a person’s life you look at it, it indicates how much good or bad luck that person has had up to that point. Luck, good and bad, as I define it, stretches back to before a person’s conception and accumulates from there on.

I should also briefly mention that the above diagram, while useful, is a little misleading. It gives the impression that to achieve privilege a person needs to be in the inner circle in respect of every pie slice; that the disadvantaged are on the rim of the wheel for every factor. That’s not reality. Take my case: for almost all of those pie slices I’m in the centre circle – but not all. Does that mean I’m not privileged? Of course not. I’ve had plenty of good luck, and I’m privileged as a result. Consider neurodivergence: among several high-profile dyslexics is Richard Branson. Consider skin colour: as I write this the UK’s Prime Minister is Rishi Sunak. Despite being on the edge of the wheel in those specifics, these are very privileged men. As I’ve pointed out before (for instance in the second instalment of this blog) a person’s bad luck in one or several areas may be outweighed by considerable good luck in other areas.

In sum, therefore:

  • A person who starts life with a preponderance of bad luck will accumulate more bad luck throughout life
  • A person who starts life with a preponderance of good luck will accumulate more good luck throughout life
  • A person with good luck will at every stage of life be privileged, when compared with others who have had less good luck; and the more privileged they are, the more they will attribute their privileged position to hard work.

In the next instalment, if I’m not distracted by another topic, I’ll get all political – starting with a review of how the privileged and the disadvantaged have been treated in the past and how they are treated now. 

The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.