All you need is a piece of paper and a pen. I will ask you ten questions. For every question you can answer with a “yes”, you get a point. Where you answer with a “no”, you don’t get a point. Simple. Ready?
First question: did you have access to running water as a child?
Question 2: did you know both of your parents as a child?
Question 3: did you have a violence-free childhood?
Question 4: were there books in your home as a child?
Question 5: did you complete secondary education or did you go to university?
Question 6: if you lost your job today, could you find another job without too much difficulty?
Question 7: do you have enough income to rent a small apartment within one hour of your place of work?
Question 8: do you have enough income to buy a house within one hour of your work?
Question 9: do you have enough income to go on holiday twice a year?
Question 10: if you enter a room full of typical, English-speaking, European, middle-class, white men (all of whom you are acquainted with), would you feel at ease?
I would guess that most of you reading this article scored ten points out of ten. Congratulations! Don’t worry if you did not. Even if you got 6 points out ten, you can count yourself among one of the “luckiest” people on planet earth. What if you answer the same questions for your secretary? What if you answer the questions for your office cleaner? What if you answer the questions for the man playing the accordion for money at the train station on your way to work? What if you answer the questions for the young Moroccan man who delivered your pizza a few weeks ago? My guess is they would not have scored as highly as you. These people all have less luck in life than you.
When I talk with my white friends about diversity and inclusion, one word that often comes up is “merit”. The job should go to the best person, to the person who merits it. But what is a meritocracy really? A system in which the best person comes out on top? But how much luck in life has the “best candidate” had relative to the worst? If we were to envisage a life as a race, some of us (those who scored even 5 points on the above questionnaire) start the race from the mid-way point, while others have to start way back at the beginning. Surely that is not fair? A meritocracy only works if we all start from the same place.
So what can we do to redeem the concept of meritocracy? The only way for a meritocracy to be considered fair is if those who are the luckiest (in their health and genetics; luckiest in terms of family support and income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities) also have the greatest responsibility to contribute to making the world better and to share their luck with others who have less luck.