There’s nothing like a global pandemic to make people count their blessings. Do you still have a job? Did you test positive for COVID-19 but never developed symptoms? Was there one last package of toilet paper left in the store? Psychologists have shown that people feel luckiest when they can easily imagine the alternative outcome — when the wheel of fortune almost landed on bankrupt but didn’t. More than 80,000 Americans have died and at least 30 million have lost their jobs in this pandemic, so terrible outcomes are all too easy to imagine. If you’re like me, trying to work from home while trying to homeschool children, you might begin every complaint about quarantine fatigue with the same disclaimer: “I know I’m lucky, but . . . ”
I am lucky, but the importance of luck in life is nothing new. Long before the coronavirus pandemic, if you were employed in the type of job that allowed you to go to the doctor and take time off when you were sick — if you were, in a word, “successful” — then a huge part of your success was due to luck. Acknowledging the importance of luck is the key to building a fairer society.
In order to appreciate how much of your success is due to luck, you need to know two things. First, success in the United States is strongly tied to whether or not you get a college education. Most obviously, college-educated workers are more likely to be employed and have higher salaries. But having more education isn’t just a matter of money. It’s literally a matter of life and death. As the economists Ann Case and Angus Deaton document in their new book, “Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism,” Americans without a college education tend to die earlier than their more educated neighbors. Even before the pandemic, they were dying earlier than previous cohorts of working-class Americans. These inequalities will be even starker after the coronavirus. The Pew Research Center says that 62 percent of people with a college degree have jobs that can be performed from home, where they are protected from exposure to the virus, compared with 22 percent of people with only a high school diploma.
Second, whether you get a college education is strongly influenced by the outcome of two lotteries of birth. The social lottery is the family environment you were raised in, while the genetic lottery refers to the genes you inherited. One way to understand the combined effects of the social and genetic lotteries on people’s life outcomes is to study identical twins. Given two people who began life with the exact same genes and the exact same family environment, how likely are they to forge different lives for themselves? When it comes to education, the answer is: not very. Across the United States, Europe, and Australia, identical twins are just as likely to have the same educational levels as they are to both develop a disease as genetically influenced as type 1 diabetes. They’re only slightly more likely to have the same height. This is clear evidence that your starting point in life, a stroke of luck over which you have no control, profoundly shapes whether you do well in school and receive all the benefits that come with more education.
Facing up to the reality of luck in our lives can be unsettling. Psychologists have shown that we have a strong bias toward thinking of the world as a just place where people get what they deserve. If people in experiments are asked to play a game of Monopoly that they know is rigged, in which one player is given more money to start and allowed to collect twice as much money when they pass Go!, the inevitable winner still attributes their success to their skill at the game, rather than their lucky advantages. In life, even people who were raised with incredible amounts of family wealth and fame are celebrated as “self-made” billionaires. As E.B. White wrote, “Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”
But facing up to the fact that economically successful Americans are successful in large part because they are lucky, not because they are morally deserving of greater wealth, is critical for imagining a more just and equal world. For too long, we have justified grotesque inequalities by bandying about the idea of America as a meritocracy, where some people are deemed not to have “earned” access to clean water, healthy food, medical care, and freedom from the anxiety and despair imposed by constant financial precarity. Now, as the novelist Arundhati Roy wrote, “the pandemic is a portal,” forcing us to “break with the past and imagine [our] world anew.” We should not carry the myth of meritocracy with us through that portal.
Instead, we need an economy that works for everyone, not just a college-educated elite. After all, even if everyone had a college degree, we would still need people to harvest food, build houses, check out groceries, deliver mail, and pick up the trash. The pandemic has revealed what should have been clear all along: So-called “unskilled” workers, who have been largely excluded from our national prosperity for decades, are in fact the most essential to a functioning society. As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached to a church full of striking sanitation workers: “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant. All labor has dignity.”
In the coming weeks and months, there will be heated debates about how the government should respond to record-high joblessness, a volatile stock market, and a novel virus that is killing thousands of Americans every day. For every proposal, we can ask: Does this policy further concentrate health and wealth and power in the hands of a few people under the guise that they deserve it? Or, does it reflect the dignity of all workers, not just the college-educated professional? The crisis offers us an opportunity to begin, at long last, to spread the luck around, so that everyone shares in our national prosperity and our national struggles, regardless of the outcome of the social and genetic lotteries.
Kathryn Paige Harden is a professor of psychology at the University of Texas and the author of “The Genetic Lottery,” forthcoming from Princeton University Press. Follow her on Twitter @kph3k.