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Careers: Firstborn is a Smart Careers Move

Firstborns feel family pressure to excel and science backs it up: birth order is an important driver of career choices. What is less well understood is the role of birth order and intelligence – at least in my family.

Firstborns feel family pressure to excel and science backs it up: birth order is an important driver of career choices. What is less well understood is the role of birth order and intelligence – at least in my family.

Birth order might sound a bit farfetched for a science or careers topic, like astrology, biorhythms or a fad pizza diet, but it’s not. A Norwegian Armed Forces Medical Services study published in this month’s Science shows that firstborns of either sex are, on average, 2.3 IQ points smarter than their younger sibs.

Those several IQ points make an enormous difference when it comes to getting into college and ultimately advancing in life, contends Dr. Frank Sulloway, author of Born to Rebel: Birth Order, Family Dynamics and Creative Lives. Sulloway, who commented on the study in the New York Times and in this month’s Science (fees, registration required), says, “There’s some evidence to suggest that first and later-borns go into different kinds of careers and have associated different motivations.”

As everyone knows, throughout history, the eldest child (okay, the eldest boy) has inherited property or the family business and typically received ample resources to get ahead in life. And firstborns have profited from the attention: they are “over-represented” statistically as Presidents, leaders and Nobel Prize Winners.

By contrast, resource-constrained younger sibs have been more likely to reject the family plan, affecting their personality and grade point average and – most importantly – this competition has spurred their ability to innovate and be creative. So while in general eldest sibs lead the world, younger sibs are the rebellious ones that actually change it as they reject the status quo.

I asked Sulloway, who studies family dynamics among other subjects at UC-Berkeley (he’s also one of the world’s leading experts on Darwin), if these several IQ points matter so much, why don’t employers screen new hires on the basis of sib order (even if they’re legally not allowed to ask)? “If people use birth order in job interviews they’re using a stereotype rather than good information and they might pick someone on false inference,” he says. “If someone came to me to work as a research assistant I wouldn’t ask them about their birth order. If they told me I wouldn’t infer anything major about it.”

And intelligence is not the only indicator of success. Creativity and conceptual ability are also important indicators of future success.

Recruiters are not unaware of this firstborn advantage. “I’m a big believer in it but legally you can’t ask where they fall in birth order – that’s the problem,” says an executive recruiter friend of mine. She points out that chief executives tend to be taller than average too – the Abe Lincoln effect.

No one has studied where bloggers or journalists fall in the sib order, but I think we can draw our own conclusions. Did you know that couples most often choose a spouse that matches their sib order? I read this in Sulloways’s superb book, Born to Rebel, a decade ago. What would be extremely weird is if hiring managers unconsciously hire people who match their sib order.

Rusty Weston, My Global Career • San Francisco, Ca • rusty@myglobalcareer.com • http://www.myglobalcareer.com/

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