Are younger siblings who outshine their elders the exceptions that prove the rule, or proof that birth order is irrelevant to success, asks Fiona McCade
HAVE you ever heard of Zofia Sklodowska? She was the eldest child of Bronislawa and Wladyslaw Sklodowski and she had four little brothers and sisters: Josef, Bronislawa, Helena and Marie.
If Zofia’s name doesn’t mean anything to you, then that of her youngest sibling, Marie, might ring a bell. Marie went on to discover two new elements, radium and polonium, and became not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, but the first person to win two, in different fields – one for physics and one for chemistry. Perhaps you know Marie by her married name, Curie.
If a new study is to be believed, Marie Curie’s success is doubly unusual, because eldest – not youngest – daughters are the ones most likely to take the world by storm.
According to the Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Essex, nobody can beat a family’s eldest child for drive and achievement, and if that child is female, the effects are even more marked. Whatever the size, status or configuration of a family, first-born girls are the ones most likely to go on to higher education, and are 13 per cent more ambitious than even first-born boys.
I am a first-born girl, but I am also an only-born, so under the rules of this study, I don’t count. Onlies and twins were left out of the data – I’m guessing because we make everybody else look bad. However, as someone who has always felt that they would do a damn fine job of ruling the world, I can see the logic in this research.
Girls mature quicker than boys, so a first-born girl already has a huge advantage over a little brother. Also, by dint of age, size and guile, a first-born girl has a head start against any sisters who might come along later, so what’s to stop her blazing her trail, and singeing the hapless siblings left in her wake?
Some formidable eldest sisters have been trotted out to prove this rule: the Duchess of Cambridge, Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, Venus Williams, Beyoncé. I know that not all of us will automatically applaud the achievements of some of these women, but come on, imagine having to share bunk-beds with any of them.
As a lifelong megalomaniac, it would be easy for me to accept these findings, but I have nagging doubts. It’s not merely that Zofia Sklodowska and her other siblings have been totally lost to history, while wee Marie’s legend lives on. Inconvenient facts keep cropping up. For example, if you compare the tennis career of Venus Williams against that of her baby sister Serena, the younger sibling is the clear winner. Scratch the surface of history and you see that ambitious Anne Boleyn got a wedding ring and a crown out of Henry VIII, while her sweet-but-stupid elder sister Mary only got the push. Maria Anna Mozart never made quite such a big impression as her baby brother Wolfgang. And let’s not forget Muriel Roberts, whose little sister Margaret dazzled at Oxford, became Britain’s first female prime minister and won three general elections. On second thoughts, perhaps we should forget poor Muriel – everybody else has.
This research claims that first-borns are higher achievers than the rest of their families, but it doesn’t say how it defines “achievement”. So far in her life, the Duchess of Cambridge has married a man and had a baby. If her younger sister Pippa eventually does the same, will she be judged to be less successful if she does it without benefit of royalty?
It has often been suggested that some eldest children, being the result of their mother and father’s first foray into parenting, feel the burden of their parents’ hopes and fears more heavily than the children who come along later. This sort of pressure, whether consciously applied or not, might nudge them towards careers that their families consider to be more high-profile, or lucrative. If you measure success purely by social standing and accumulation of money, then you might be impressed to know that, like George W. Bush, more than half of all presidents of the United States have been first-borns. You might not be so interested in a first-born who suffered for years from mental illness, failed utterly in his career, never made a penny, and died of a (probably self-inflicted) gunshot wound aged 37. That was Mr Van Gogh’s eldest son, Vincent.
I’d love to believe that first-borns, especially girls, are meant to triumph over ordinary humans. We could run the world, while the rest of you little people carried out our orders. Believe me, such an arrangement would suit me perfectly, but even I have to admit that this isn’t the way things work.
My favourite world leader of all time, Napoleon, was a second child, and he bullied his older brother into doing everything he wanted. Perhaps the insecurity of not being first-in-line made him tougher. It’s worth noting that after taking charge of France, one of the first laws he passed was to ensure that no child in a family could be disinherited.
Looking again at Marie Curie’s family tree, we see that it wasn’t as straightforward as it looked. Families rarely are. In fact, Zofia died young, but the grief of her death caused Marie to become an atheist. Who knows if that pushed her even further into the realms of science? Marie herself had two daughters. The elder, Irene, also became a Nobel Laureate in chemistry. The younger, Eve, was a celebrated author, who fought for the French Resistance and worked tirelessly for Unicef. She once remarked: “There were five Nobel Prizes in my family: two for my mother, one for my father, one for [my] sister and brother-in-law and one for my husband. Only I was not successful.”
I disagree. That looks like a pretty successful life to me, and it certainly beats marrying a prince.