LONDON – What do Angela Merkel, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Christine Lagarde, Oprah Winfrey, Sheryl Sandberg, JK Rowling and Beyonce have in common? Other than riding high in Forbes list of the world’s most powerful women, they are also all firstborn children in their families.
Turn to British science and one finds Dame Jane Goodall, Dr. Susan Greenfield and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, also firstborn children.
Now such anecdotal evidence of firstborn high achievement has been borne out by research. A groundbreaking study, by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER), University of Essex, in southeast England, appears to show that, if you are the eldest child and female, you are statistically more likely to be the most ambitious and well-qualified of all your family.
Next in line for success come firstborn boys — all 12 men to have walked on the moon were either the eldest or only children.
The study also found that parents could strive to have children more likely to become high achievers by leaving a gap of at least four years between each child; the wider the gap, the greater the chances of higher qualifications.
Leaving out families with only children or with just twins, the research looked at the impact of sibling structures on aspirations. Previous studies, particularly in Norway, Denmark and the Netherlands, revealed that the firstborn are more likely to win higher qualifications, but the ISER research found that this could be partly explained by the fact that they are likely to be more ambitious than their younger brothers and sisters.
Sibling Configurations, Educational Aspiration and Attainment followed 1,503 sibling groups and 3,532 individuals through the British Household Panel Study and its successor, Understanding Society. Even taking into account parents’ levels of education and professional status, the study found that firstborn children were 7 percent more likely to aspire to stay on in education than younger siblings. Firstborn girls were 13 percent more ambitious than firstborn boys. The probability of attending further education for firstborns is 16 percent higher than their younger siblings. Girls are 4 percent more likely to have further education qualifications.
“There are several possible explanations for the higher attainment and ambition of the eldest,” said Bu. “It could be that the parents simply devote more time and energy to them — it could be that they are actually more intelligent. For me, I tend to lean toward the theory that parental investment is possibly at work here.
“And I would say that the larger the age gap between the children, the better the qualifications. I don’t think the number of children is something I can say anything about, as this study was done here in the U.K., where family size tends to be smaller, so there was no substantial difference to note.”
She also said she had found no evidence of the oft-heard complaint of middle children that they had been “left out” of parental attentions.
“There is a lot of interest there, about the whole middle-born experience, that they don’t have as much parental attention that the first — or last-borns get. That they are somehow left out. But I didn’t find any evidence to suggest that.”
The study also looked at gender mix among siblings, and size of families — again excluding twins and only children — and found that this had no bearing on their ambitions or achievements later in life. There was no evidence that the sex of another sibling made any difference to the level of aspiration. However, it was found that a bigger age gap between brothers and sisters did make a difference on educational attainment.
“It shows us how educational disparities exist not only between families but also within families,” said Bu. “It is interesting that we observe a distinct firstborn advantage in education, even though parents in modern society are more likely to be egalitarian in the way they treat their children.”
And does she have a personal interest in studying sibling structures?
“I’m the firstborn of course. That is why I’m doing a Ph.D.”