Logically, it seems there could be a link. Traits of diligence, attention and compliance could mean a child is better adapted to working at school, does well, and the effects snowball into later life. Of course, that’s assuming an even playing field – that children have the chance to turn up to school and give it their best in the first place.
But such a link – between childhood traits and adult earnings – seems disturbingly deterministic. Does the evidence really suggest that the way you act as a kid shapes the rest of your life?
In a recent Canadian study, researchers looked at the behaviours of kindergarten-age children and their future earnings. The initial data were collected as part of the Quebec Longitudinal Study of Kindergarten Children, which followed boys and girls born in 1980 through to 2015.
Teachers assessed the behaviours of their children using a questionnaire and were able to determine values for a child’s levels of inattention, hyperactivity, physical aggression, opposition (essentially how likely a child was to follow the rules), anxiety and prosociality (cooperating with and helping others). They also tested each child’s cognitive ability and socio-economic circumstances.
Then, using tax return data decades later, the researchers were able to marry up each child’s behaviours and traits with what they earned as an adult in their 30s. More than 2000 people were followed in the study.
The researchers found that all of the childhood behaviours assessed – things like inattention, aggression and anxiety – were linked to adult income. Particularly, being rated as inattentive as a six-year-old meant lower earnings as an adult.
Being rated as aggressive and oppositional was linked to lower earnings in men, but that wasn’t seen in women.
Being prosocial was linked to higher earnings in men, but not in women. These findings were still true even after IQ and family circumstance were taken into account, though those factors also played a role in adult earnings.
The authors argue that these findings are a case for screening of young children for aggressive or inattentive behaviours, and targeted interventions to reduce those traits.
Yet they also acknowledge that these interventions go hand in hand with economic and social assistance to remedy disadvantage.
Family adversity was strongly associated with limited earning capacity as an adult – more so than any of the behavioural factors the researchers looked at.