Birth Order and Success

They were all first-born children in their families.

In his book The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why, New York University sociology professor Dalton Conley says that 75% of the income inequality between individuals in the United States occurs between siblings in the same families. His examples include famous siblings Bill and Roger Clinton and Jimmy and Billy Carter.

Folklore tells us that first-born children get the shaft because parents are likely to be stricter with them, while later-born siblings are thought to have things a little easier. And of course, we all believe the only child gets whatever he or she wants!

But what about career achievement? Does birth order really determine how successful a person will be?

According to editor Kate Lorenz, research shows that birth order impacts personality, behavior, learning, and, ultimately, earning power. First-born and only children usually reach higher educational goals, obtain greater prestige, and acquire more net wealth. On the other hand, the middle child in a large family is apt to have more struggles. Case in point: poor Jan Brady!

Here's a look at how birth order may influence you:

First-born children tend to be more conscientious, ambitious, and aggressive than their younger siblings. You will find many first-borns studying at Harvard and Yale and pursuing disciplines requiring higher education, such as medicine, engineering, or law. More than half of all Nobel Prize winners and U.S. presidents have been first-born children, and every U.S. astronaut has either been the oldest child in the family or the oldest boy.

On the other hand, the middle child is more easygoing and peer-oriented. Middle children often take on the role of mediator and peacemaker and usually develop terrific people skills. Bill Gates, J.F.K., Madonna, and Princess Diana are a few famous middle children.

Creativity, charm, and a touch of manipulativeness are the hallmarks of the youngest child. Youngest siblings often identify with the underdog and find success in journalism, advertising, sales, and the arts. Some famous youngest children include Cameron Diaz, Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Rosie O'Donnell, Eddie Murphy, and Billy Crystal.

Then there's the only child. Only children have characteristics similar to those of first-borns and often struggle as a result of high parental expectations. Research shows that "onlies" have high expectations of others, don't handle criticism well, tend toward inflexibility, and are likely to be perfectionists. But on the positive side, they are more confident and articulate and use their imaginations more than other children do. Here are some only children you may have heard of: Rudy Giuliani, F.D.R., Alan Greenspan, Tiger Woods, Maria Sharapova, and Leonardo da Vinci.

Regarding multiple births, because twins hold equal status and are treated so similarly, most of the time, they turn out similarly. Remember twin advice columnists Abigail and Esther Friedman, better known as "Dear Abby" and "Ann Landers"? And then there were Harold and Bernard Shapiro, who became the presidents of Princeton University and Canada's McGill University respectively.

While such speculations are entertaining, Conley stresses that these are just general trends. Other factors, such as a child's personality, the age gap between siblings (more space equals less rivalry), and other family dynamics (divorce, remarriage, and relocation), can blow birth-order theory out of the water.

Based on the luck of the draw, there are different niches, or roles, available within our families depending upon when we come along. How we behave at work might be partly related to birth order and the roles we negotiated while competing with brothers and sisters for emotional, physical, and intellectual attention from our parents. Consequently, children develop different ways of fitting in and different personality styles.

Ultimately, the way someone adapted to his or her family role can be an important determinant of adult personality and a forecaster of behavior in the workplace.

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