Does birth order dictate career choices? This study has the answer

Siblings usually hate being compared to one another, but most of the time mom and dad just can’t help but place certain attributes on their children. “Oh, she’s the creative one in the family,” or “he’s much more goal-oriented than his siblings.” 

According to the typical stereotypes, firstborn children are usually more analytical than their younger brothers and sisters, aiming for well-paying jobs, higher education, careers in scientific fields, and more prestige in general. Later born children, on the other hand, supposedly tend to be more creative, artistic, and laid back when it comes to career matters.

But, is any of that really true? Barely, according to a new study just released by the University of Houston. Researchers at UH say birth order has minimal to no impact whatsoever on a person’s career, creativity, and overall life outcomes.

“Our findings suggest that the role of birth order on career types, occupational creativity and status attainment might have been overestimated in previous research, and the only finding that replicated previous research was a small effect of birth order on educational attainment,” explains Rodica Damian, assistant professor of psychology and director of the Personality Development and Success Lab at UH, in a release. “We found that firstborns selected into more creative careers and attained higher job prestige and education.”

To come to these conclusions the research team utilized a long-term set of data initially collected from a group of U.S. high school students in 1960, with another round of follow-up data collection taking place 50 years later (2010).

Career and life outcomes for those individuals were compared against their birth order. More specifically, artistic versus scientific careers were examined, as well as levels of occupational creative output and “status attainment” (income level, job prestige, education attained).

“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,” professor Damian says.

At this point, study authors theorize that these stereotypes themselves are likely perpetuating themselves far more regularly than any legitimate connection between birth order and life goals/personality. For example, if a parent assumes their firstborn will be analytical and pursue a STEM career they’ll likely push their child in that direction from an early age.

“Thus, rather than assuming that firstborns are destined for success due to their birth order and presumed associated qualities, 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,” she continues.

When it comes to the subject and study of birth order and its role on life goals, there are two main schools of thought: the niche-finding model and the confluence model.

According to the niche-finding model, the firstborn child is assigned the more “traditional” role in the family as being the responsible, goal-oriented, and confident child. Meanwhile, later-born siblings are then left to fill the “rebellious” role in the family; taking more risks, exploring creative subjects, and generally being more easy-going.

The confluence model states firstborn children are somewhat more intelligent than their siblings because as each new child is introduced into a family, the “intellectual environment” of that household decreases just a little bit.

While no support whatsoever was noted for the niche-finding theory, researchers say they did uncover some evidence in favor of the confluence model. Firstborns do tend to reach higher levels of education and greater job prestige, but there was no indication that firstborns stay away from creative endeavors.

“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,” Damian concludes.

The full study can be found here, published in the European Journal of Personality.