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Not Popular in High School? Your Career Is Toast.

Vivia Chen

October 31, 2012


Remember those A-listers in high school who treated you like a piece of furniture? They probably hurt your feelings, but you licked your wounds by telling yourself that you'd eventually be more successful. After all, you were a top student who took a ridiculous load of A.P. classes, devoted untold hours to Model U.N., and won buckets of debate trophies. Meanwhile, the most challenging thing they did was plan for homecoming.

Too bad life isn't always just. It turns out that unless you're nerd extraordinaire Mark Zuckerberg, those who are less socially adept lose out to the popular kids in the game of life.

Using data from a survey of over 10,000 men and women who graduated from a Wisconsin high school in 1957, researchers from the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study find that popularity pays—literally. Reports the Wonkblog of The Washington Post:

A new working paper may throw some cold water on any “Revenge of the Nerds” fantasies: It finds that more popular high school students earn more than their less-liked counterparts— even decades after graduation.

Looking at how social characteristics affect career over the decades, the researchers find that "if a student moved from the 20th percentile of popular up to the 80th percentile, it would yield a salary 10 percent higher—40 years later." 

But here's the really depressing part for all you superachievers: The popular kids in high school have the career edge, even after factoring in "family background, school quality, cognitive ability, and adult personality traits." Being adept at social interactions in high school “trains individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles,” say the researchers.

So that means that if you went to Swarthmore and then Harvard Law, played chess at the master's level, and even acquired a modicum of social finesse in adulthood, you will still play second fiddle to the guy who led the pep rally squad.

But those in the legal profession might find solace in the fact that it's not a field populated by many high school cheerleaders. (Don't you have a hard time visualizing H. Rodgin Cohen, Evan Chesler, or Marty Lipton as part of a human pyramid? Ted Olson, however, I can see.) Happily, law is one of the few professions where just a smidgen of charm can go a long way. So work on it.

The not-so-good news: That snotty cheerleader you despised is outearning you—and always will. Worse, she is the client you're desperately trying to bag. And she's still treating you like a piece of furniture.

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The article may sound like it's really talking only about girls who grow up, but the same phenom can be true with boys. Look at W. vs Barack ... W was none too deep but you wanted to love him anyway, as long your didn't let his policies affect it; our current prez struggles to be liked, and still hates the schmooze game. Guess who will be earning more in retirement from the White House? (Hint: W is now raking in scads by getting invited to lecture his fans in Caymans venues.)

Other factors at work here:
- Popular kids are usually ones who can afford the latest fashionable stuff; a privileged family gives you a leg up on a career, and the effect lasts.
- A difference between 20%ile and 80%ile in popularity is a lot bigger than a difference of 10% in salary.
- Learning social graces ain't so easy, and your competition never stops gaining them; so fully catching up just isn't realistic.

It appears to be a logical conclusion but my high class appears to be an aberration. Most of the popular kids didn't finish college and/or are still living at home with their parents, working minimum wage jobs while the nerds and dorks went on to have careers. I actually turned out to be the most successful person out of my graduating class (sad state of affairs, I know)

Love your posts as always, Vivia. But I thought Wash Post's interpretation highly specious.

Here's the problem with extrapolating, as WP does, that your high school nemesis makes more than you: "You" (as used in this article) are NOT the average salary of your group, the uncool kids (including those who were uncool because stoner/poor hygiene/just plain awkward)--"you" should be closer to the the average salary of your sub-group, the smart nerds (uncool because of abovementioned Model UN and swottily doing homework all the time).

Even if Popular outearns Unpopular as groups, it likely doesn't hold individually. For example, assume 1 popular kid turned multi-millionaire, who's built on charisma, connections, and a strong later-discovered work ethic (hi, Mitt Romney). That individual's earnings is enough to balance out all the other popular kids' median or zero income (wastrelling, being normal HR person who gets paid a paltry 10K more than less attractive/popular HR person, etc.). Mitt outearns you, but you and your smart nerd peers massively outearn most or many of the other popular kids. Even if they in turn earn more than the non-popular and non-smart kids, that's doesn't impede your Revenge of the Nerds.

Now imagine if Mitt went to a different school and you never knew him--you could well have outearned every one of the popular kids you do know.

(None of which is to say anything about income v. self-worth. :) But that's a different story.)


If you look at the data, 52% of the subject respondants to this survey were women - women who graduated from High School in Wisconsin in 1957.

Given what we already know about the total number of women who chose to pursue a career directly after High School graduation in the late 1950's, the barriers they faced in entering "nerdy" college/graduate programs and careers, their persistant struggle against glass ceilings, and their continued struggle for equal pay for equal work, I would be very cautious about lending much creedence to the type of generalization made in the Washington Post blog posting.

It is highly likely that this "conclusion" that cheerleader types earn more than nerd types has been influenced more by this type of internal data bias.

For reference, simply read this excerpt from Ch. 1 of Betty Friedan's standby, "The Feminine Mystique:"

"By the end of the nineteen-fifties, the average marriage age of women in America dropped to 20, and was still dropping, into the teens, Fourteen million girls were engaged by 17. The proportion of women attending college in comparison with men dropped from 47 percent in 1920 to 35 percent in 1958. A century earlier, women had fought for higher education; now girls went to college to get a husband. By the mid-fifties, 60 percent dropped out of college to marry, or because they were afraid too much education would be a marriage bar. Colleges built dormitories for "married students," but the students were almost always the husbands. A new degree was instituted for the wives - "Ph.T." (Putting Husband Through)."

Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a champion baton-twirler.

"Law is one of the few professions where just a smidgen of charm can go a long way." It sounds like a lot of charm could make you a millionaire. Let's hope those popular kids don't get that message! --Former Cheerleader (still waiting for my riches in the law... :-))

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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