As I was sitting at a Counting Crows concert last night, I saw a young man in his early twenties walking down the aisles, carrying a mop. His head was down, and he dutifully followed another man, clearly his supervisor, who was pointing to spills, vomit, and other suspicious-looking liquids on the floor. As thousands enjoyed music, drinks, and friends, this guy cleaned up our collective mess. All night, he was led from spot to spot like a work horse, invisible to the majority of us.
We like to think that the U.S. is a democracy where anyone can become anything. In some sense this is true. But for the large majority of us, our destiny is shaped while we’re still in utero: by our genes, hormones, and parents’ social status. This is not new news, but many forget that, for the kid whose parents are barely making ends meet, a job cleaning up messes might be the best he can do, or it might be the best he can do quickly.
Some moms and dads can barely help themselves, and they don’t have the influence or resources to help their kids. I help my teens financially in many ways that other parents cannot. My husband has helped family members get high-paying jobs that they were not qualified for. These are examples of advantages that we neither earn nor deserve, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise. And it is one reason that we should pay a living wage or better to those folks who are not born with the same advantages and opportunities, to the folks who work into the night cleaning up messes or who wash our cars in the heat of the day or who help build bridges in cold weather. It is the reason why mentoring programs are so important and why nepotism not only hurts the health of a business but also unfairly takes opportunities from others.
While hard work does indeed factor into success, whether you become a janitor or a white-collar employee has a lot to do with serendipity.