Birth Order Means More Than School or Faith

By Thomson, Alice | The Spectator, January 12, 2008 | Go to article overview

Birth Order Means More Than School or Faith


Thomson, Alice, The Spectator


Kirkcaldy High School vs Eton, Highland Scot vs Newbury toff, Edinburgh University vs Oxford. If you are choosing between Gordon Brown and David Cameron that's what the next election may come down to. Or is there another factor? No one ever mentions birth order. Mr Brown is the classic case. With a younger brother, as well as an older one, he genuinely feels a strong moral duty to do his best for his father (son of the manse as he is) and to compete with his elder brother, who preceded him to Edinburgh University. He wants order and precision, he is conscientious and hard-working, nervous of making decisions and less open to new experiences. He is weighed down by the burden of expectation he carries on his shoulders. After all, almost his first words on becoming Prime Minister were: 'I will do my best for all the people of Britain.' Implicit was the fear, which David Cameron would not naturally feel, that his best might not be good enough.

David Cameron, by contrast, follows the patterns of a youngest son. Like Tony Blair, another youngest brother, he is more cavalier, easy-going and charming. Mr Blair was able to send British soldiers to fight and die in a number of controversial wars, and sleep easy at night. Mr Cameron has a similar confidence. Some would say that Mr Blair's certainty derived from his religious belief, and Mr Cameron's from his social background and education, but maybe there is more to it than that.

It sounds ridiculous, but in America birth order is taken very seriously indeed. However talented or dedicated you are, companies now increasingly ask people where they come in the family. International seminars are conducted into the differences between families with odd numbers of children and those with even numbers. American universities are finding that they have to skew their results as elder children seem to outperform their young siblings in tests. According to Vistage, an international organisation of CEOs, 76 per cent of chief executives are first- or second-borns.

Americans tend to prefer their presidents to be firstborn children. Presidents Teddy Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were all eldest sons. Many of their younger siblings went off the rails.

Elliot Roosevelt died of alcoholism, Donald Nixon caused Richard financial embarrassment, Billy Carter became a supporter of Libya in its pariah days. Roger Clinton spent a year in jail on a cocaine charge and Neil Bush was implicated in a savings-and-loan scandal.

In Britain, we go through phases. After a hefty dose of Margaret, an eldest child, we welcomed the more laid-back youngest son, Mr Blair. But despite the charm, after ten years of guitars and photoshoots and mugs of tea, we thought we wanted the more serious Mr Brown.

In Britain the importance of birth order has been ignored for years, perhaps because it seems unfair -- or absurd -- that such a random event should have such influence on character and career possibilities. But the research increasingly shows that it may matter more than the time of year you are born or whether you were breast-fed and possibly as much as where you went to school.

The father of the birth-order school was the Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler, a contemporary of Freud and Jung, who invented the concept of the 'inferiority complex'. Adler believed that older children suffered from excessive responsibility and consequent neuroticism, with a dash of melancholy thrown in because they struggle to adjust to the arrival of their siblings and find it easier to succeed through hard work than charm. …

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