New research suggests being a first-born child doesn’t have quite as much of an influence on your career choices as has been previously suggested – which is reassuring to know, no matter where you fit in the timeline of your siblings.
An analysis of a longitudinal study that tracked 3,763 Americans across 50 years found no evidence that birth order is linked to the jobs we end up doing, though there does appear to be a small correlation between birth order and status attainment, which includes academic achievement.
The popular idea that first-borns follow more scientific paths and other children end up in more creative roles isn’t backed up by the data, the researchers found, and they point out that there are always plenty of other factors to consider, too.
“The little evidence there is for a possible link between birth order, education, and status attainment points more to unexplained causal mechanisms rather than traits and abilities attributed – but not necessarily scientifically supported – to specific birth orders,” says psychologist Rodica Damian, from the University of Houston.
Previous research puts forward two hypotheses: one is that children born later in a family try and find niches not already filled by the first-born child, so they end up taking more risks, and being more creative and sociable, which affects their career choices.
The second idea is that first-born children are usually more intelligent and do better at school and in their careers because the kids that follow afterwards have less intellectual stimulation – there’s just not as much adult-to-child time to go around.
The number-crunching done by Damian and her colleague, psychologist Marion Spengler from the University of Tübingen in Germany, found no support for the first ‘niche-finding’ model and a small amount of support for the second ‘confluence’ model, albeit with question marks over the causality of the relationship.
First-born children were actually slightly more likely to find careers in creative fields, according to the collected data, which is something to think about if you’re wondering which of your kids will end up following which career paths.
“It might be better to direct our attention to the social expectations, practices, or even parenting books that may be biasing our investments into the future of children based on their birth order as opposed to their observed individual characteristics,” says Damian.
Plenty of previous research has analysed these links before, though the findings are often contradictory. Part of the issue is that there are so many influences on children and families that it’s difficult to isolate birth order as a factor on its own.
Different studies also use different measurements, different experiments and different groups of kids (in terms of backgrounds, ages, and so on), which may explain some of the variations in research that we’ve seen in the past. Culture is obviously a major factor, as well.
What also makes this area of research fascinating is that we’ve all got our own family experiences and stories to tell, whether first-born, last-born, or only-born. In terms of hard science, though, it seems birth order doesn’t affect the job you end up doing.
“Our findings suggest that the role of birth order on career types, occupational creativity and status attainment might have been overestimated in previous research,” says Damian.
“In practical terms, there is little-to-no evidence here to suggest that first- vs later-borns are destined for specific careers, so parents should not be surprised if their firstborn wants to become an artist.”
The research has been published in the European Journal of Personality.