Birth Order
Does childhood position in the family have an impact on success in the workplace? Are firstborn children more likely to be high achievers than their younger siblings? Not necessarily, according to AHEAD’s recent survey of 6381 high achieving candidates and contacts.

In fact 40% of respondents were the firstborn of two or more children and another 9% only children 2. And these statistics hardly changed among those of them at senior level. While it is difficult to determine precise base population base rates for such a group of diverse ages and nationalities, these percentages do not seem unusual.

Yet this outcome contrasts significantly with a high profile observation in US academia. In an informal study, Harvard Professor Michael Sandel 3 noted in 2009 that his Justice class usually comprised 75-80% firstborn children. He uses this data to infer that the academic effort a child exerts depends on birth order, with firstborn children exhibiting high effort levels, and thus being over-represented at Harvard. However, researchers 4 have since commented that this statistic may be less meaningful than first thought. Millner and Calel argue that ‘a more plausible explanation is that mothers of Harvard students have significantly fewer children than the national average’. In other words, this is a subject fraught with complexity - particularly in establishing accurate population base rates for a particular group.

Harvard professor says 75% of his class are firstborn

Meanwhile 71% of AHEAD respondents believe that there is a link between birth order and personality. Yet when asked to assess their own personal and professional traits - like leadership - responses showed only slight differences between birth order positions. This could mean that AHEAD’s audience generally demonstrates the traits required by companies today, regardless of their childhood position in the family.

However, identifying the apparent strongest and weakest group across each trait is nonetheless rather interesting: only children assessed most strongly their achievements, early leadership, independence and stress resistance but were seemingly the least collaborative group. First born of two or more appeared most perfectionist and least happy taking risks but surprisingly did not stand out particularly in self-rating their leadership from a young age. The younger of two children were the least likely group to be ambitious, but regularly seem to make people laugh and – like the youngest – felt they regularly challenge the status quo. Middle children were the most likely mediators, the least well-organised and - like only children - scored their stress-resistance highly; and the youngest in the family gave themselves the highest assessments for charm, well developed emotional intelligence and caring for people. Like middle children, they felt strongly collaborative by nature. Interestingly, youngest – alongside only children – topped the charts for creativity. Self-assessment of bossiness declined precisely in line with birth order!

1 Surveyed by email in April 2011. 638 contributors comprised 62% senior, 36% middle managers, 2% junior. The sample was 57% male, 43% female.
2 13% were younger of 2; 23% middle children;15% youngest of 3 or more.
3 Sandel, Michael 2009. Justice. Farrar,Straus and Giroux
4 Base-rate neglect and birth order academic effort in Michael Sandel’s Harvard Justice Class, Antony Millner and Raphael Calel, LSE London, July 2010