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Is the ‘Head-Start in Life’ Narrative Really Overrated?

A head-start in life matters, but so do hard work, talent and, to some extent, luck. Should we find ourselves at great socio-economic disadvantage, beating the odds against us should be our chief preoccupation, sometimes over our lifetime

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A head-start is an advantage that someone has over other people in something, a phrase mostly used when referring to a competition or race. However, a head-start in life is far more complex than a linear foot race with a starting and finishing line. It refers to a host of factors that shape our aspirations, attitudes and limit or boost our lifetime performance. The general assumption is that having a head-start early in life gives us a leg up in navigating difficult and unforeseen times that life throws at us. A head-start provides us an inherent advantage which enables us a considerable upward trajectory in our pursuit of success, happiness and leading a life with a meaningful contribution to society and the world.

Critics of the notion that certain groups of society having a support system which others don’t have argue that it is a powerful determinant of economic outcomes and the ability to move up the social ladder, and that it undermines the notion that every citizen in a particular country has roughly the same chance of achieving economic success. However, proponents of this phenomenon point out that there is nothing wrong with highly accomplished parents providing their children with opportunities that help them stay in the top of their game through all stages of life. They also emphasise that a critical intervention in the formative years of our children is necessary if we want to prepare them for a competitive world.

At the centre of this debate are the issues of parenteral wealth and private education. Parenteral wealth can serve as a protection against falling into financially hard times that could derail someone’s positive trajectory. It also enables parents to send their kids to private schools which equip them with the skills to get to elite colleges whose alumni make up an astonishing proportion of the national elite. Wealthy parents also provide their children with a stable environment that nurtures the intellectual, emotional and cognitive growth of their children. A copious amount of studies support the profound impact that intergenerational wealth gap has over the lifetime performance of individuals.

Wealth and private education can super-charge your child to Oxford or Harvard. A recent study in the UK found that nearly half of Oxbridge students- Oxford and Cambridge- come from middle and upper classes of British society despite such classes constituting only seven percent of British society. While most data supports the existence of head-start in life in some segments of society, can we really look beyond the mere argument that certain people are born into privilege with unmerited, unearned advantage while others are born into hardship and uncertainty. Can there be an escape from intergenerational poverty? Should the socio-economic standards of our family and country of birth determine our lifetime achievements?

There are issues we overlook when we discuss what it means to be born into privilege. Understanding these issues may comfort us or help us have a different perspective on what it really means to be advantaged or privileged. First, let’s us not devalue ourselves and our personal struggles or question our self-worth simply because we’re born into a working-class family with small means. Our respect for other people shouldn’t be predicated on financial and professional status, but rather on character and personal merit. While privilege is subjective and relative based on which country you live in, we should never resent other people’s successes nor grow envious of their achievements.

Being privileged does not mean that someone will certainly lead a perfect life neither does it guarantee him or her success. The media is inundated with stories of families of the rich and famous leading deeply troubled lives. Being rich does not guarantee that you will give birth to a brainy kid. Of course, a private education may polish the academic and soft skills of a child, but it is not a guarantee that such child will stand out from a large crowd. Being rich does not give you an immunity to personal misfortunes. I have seen rich families struggle with raising a child with severe disability. The emotional toll of parents raising a physically and mentally disabled child with Cerebral Palsy is immense even when they can afford to hire a private carer for their sick child. Wealth and privilege can be a source of unhappiness and frustration for many as it can fuel family feud or bitter separation which can negatively affect the mental wellbeing of their children.

Having a privilege does not mean you won’t have hurdles in life, it just means you may have fewer of them. A fewer number of hurdles does not mean lesser in severity either. Some people can be shaken by one big life challenge to utter despair. A better financial situation does not mean a better innate ability to cope with personal adversities, an inevitable phenomenon for a great number of us. Let’s also not underestimate the role of luck in our lives. A simple stroke of luck can produce life-changing outcomes. It is possible that two people with the same academic qualification and professional skills get two totally different outcomes in a job interview. How can we explain this difference in outcome even when their soft skills like communication, teamwork, emotional intelligence and problem-solving are almost the same? Luck! I suppose.

Our obsession with a head-start and privilege should not make us discount hard work and personal effort. Of course, working hard does not guarantee a financial success. A hard-working plumber may still labour in poverty and obscurity in his entire lifetime. However, in most rags-to-riches stories, hard work is uniformly the underpinning phenomenon. Perhaps Kevin Durant, an American professional basketball player, was right when he said: ‘Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard’. But talent and intelligence themselves are hardly a monopoly of the rich. And when hard work is combined with a talent, something money can hardly buy, the chances of someone shining and cruising to success is astoundingly high. Also, a middle-class person landing in a good job does not necessarily mean that h/she really enjoys it or finds it fulfilling.  

Should we beat overwhelming odds and make it even without a head-start in life through sheer hard work or a fantastic stroke of luck, let’s give others in difficult times a hand. Let’s take time to fully appreciate our personal journey and struggle. Let’s make dismantling social inequities a personal mission even at a policy level. Let’s understand that the realisation of a fairer society is our collective interest. Let’s be mindful that our personal success can serve as an inspiration for others on the brink of despair. Let’s not slam the doorway of opportunity shut behind us when we make it. Instead, let’s reach back and give others the same chances that helped us succeed–a head-start we didn’t’ have ourselves.  

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