Apart from their billionaire status, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have another thing in common: the three iconic CEOs are all first-born children. Jim Carrey, Celine Dion and Robin Williams, on the other hand, are all last-borns who have made a name for themselves in the arts. While it sounds a coincidence, there could be more to it than that.
In the early 1900s, Alfred Adler, an Austrian doctor and psychotherapist, began postulating that birth order and psychological development were connected. Throughout the 20th century, his work has been used as a foundation to describe the “typical profiles” of first-born, second-born, last-born and only children. With that in mind, could birth order influence your workplace behaviour and even your career path?
Birth order and personality
The first-born child: a natural leader
My first-born son is a natural leader, almost to the point of being authoritarian. Serious and conscientious, he also seeks approval from his superiors. But in his ceaseless quest for perfection, he finds unfinished tasks anxiety-provoking and failure hard to swallow. Sound familiar?
Since Adler’s day, theories about first-borns have drawn similar conclusions, describing them as taking on the role of surrogate parent with siblings. Whether they are keeping little sister safe from choking hazards or helping little brother cross the road safely, first-born children start looking after their younger siblings early and develop a strong sense of authority as a result. In fact, a recent YouGov study found that 54% of first-borns consider themselves more responsible than their little brothers and sisters.
While several studies show that first-born children have a slightly higher IQ, it could be down to nurture, not nature. Before siblings come onto the scene, first-borns are naturally the focus of their parents’ attention. An increase in intellectual stimulation means that their cognitive development receives a boost as well. Cecilia, the oldest of three children, said: “My parents always took the time to expose my sisters and me to new things, but it’s true that, as the first-born, they paid more attention to my education. For example, they helped me learn to read when I was in preschool, whereas for my sisters, it was a little later, in reception class.” Those early years spent alone with parents teach first-born children more about family values as well, which makes them more traditional and conservative.
First-born children also live a more sheltered life than their younger siblings, according to US psychologist and professor Frank Sulloway. Consequently, they are typically more anxious when faced with obstacles and more sensitive to failure. Driven by a need for recognition and approval from superiors, they are said to be serious and organised, and prone to extreme perfectionism.
In the workplace, first-borns are more likely to hold managerial roles because they prefer positions of authority. A desire to be her own boss drove Cecilia to set up a company a few years ago. Of course, younger siblings could become managers too, but their performance will differ slightly. Ben Dattner, a psychology professor at New York University, has suggested that first-borns will try and improve upon the status quo while younger siblings prefer to break it down and rebuild from scratch.
Finally, according to renowned psychologist Dr Kevin Leman, first-born children are most at home in large companies with well-defined hierarchies. Although less conducive to major changes and radical innovations, such environments are perfect for those who dislike being required to adapt.
The middle child: peacemaker extraordinaire
My second-born son is outgoing, adapts quickly to any professional setting and knows what it takes to fit in. He is much like a diplomat—an expert at building professional relationships and maintaining them through his keen negotiation skills.
Adler believed that middle or second-born children generally fight for their parents’ attention, which is more focused on the first-born and the baby of the family. Anna, a middle child, said: “Basically, for several years, my older sister was misbehaving more than me and my little sister was still discovering who she was. I, for one, didn’t want to cause my parents any trouble, so I was well-behaved and quiet. I now see that it gave me more independence. It allowed me to develop personally and professionally and enabled me to adapt to settings outside the family circle as well.”
Second-born children tend to be more sociable than first-borns and are therefore more empathetic, altruistic, open-minded and innovative than their siblings. According to Professor Sulloway, the second-born child is particularly drawn to travel, including living and working abroad. This certainly applies to Anna, who has lived in Spain as an expat more than once. First-born children, however, are likely to be less adventurous and often stay close to home.
Those who are born in the middle tend to end up as the family peacemaker who helps resolve domestic disagreements. This skill feeds into the world of work as well. Anna often helps with conflict resolution at the office. “Whenever stressful situations, problems or arguments pop up, I’ve noticed I’m frequently the one to step in and act as ‘referee’. People say I’m a good mediator, but I’m not sure it’s connected to being a middle child,” she said.
To set themselves apart, the middle child might choose unchartered territory as far as the family is concerned. “When I chose to study hospitality and catering and took a liking to the industry, I realised I knew nothing about it because I was the first in my family to go into it. I felt it was an original career choice,” said Anna. “Even though I’d always played by the rules, I was still drawn to exciting professions. I guess it’s my rebellious side! But more than anything, I was able to find my niche working in a hotel, which is structured, and that’s important to me. I enjoy having a mentor but also being able to pass it on and mentor someone else. As it turns out, I like being ‘in the middle’, even at work.”
The baby of the family: soul of an artist
My youngest son is creative and full of charisma—and he knows it. In fact, he’ll sometimes play up this quality and turn it to his advantage. He’s also really attentive, and always ready to help colleagues and support those around him, both in his professional and personal life.
According to Alder, the “baby” is under less pressure than older siblings and gets extra care and attention from the entire family. Less inclined to fall short of their parents’ expectations, last-born children have more freedom to follow their dreams when it comes to career choices. According to Michael Grose, an education specialist, they are also the most creative siblings in the birth order.
Alice, the youngest of three sisters, has long been drawn to artistic professions. “When I was younger, I wanted to be a photographer, filmmaker, auctioneer and so on. I studied for a job in culture and the arts and since then, there needs to be some creative aspect in the roles I choose,” she said.
Does that mean youngest siblings are born creatively gifted? Not exactly. Their developed sensitivity is said to help them to understand their surroundings and read emotions more easily. At the same time, being so perceptive can make them a bit manipulative too. While they are adept at winning over loved ones and know how to get what they want, they also have great social skills. Alice said: “For a long time, I watched my sisters and parents interacting with the outside world and really felt that I was ‘imitating’ them to start conversations, for example. Today I feel as if I can blend into different environments as a result.”
Thanks to their more relaxed upbringing, 46% of last-born children generally see themselves as pretty easygoing, according to a UK study. “When you’re the baby of the family, you basically tend to be more optimistic and less anxious,” said Alice. “Since I watched my parents and sisters, I realised that things get better, even when you encounter obstacles. And, when you have a problem, as the ‘youngest’ family member, more experienced people are on hand to help, which ends up being an advantage!”
With this extra support, youngest siblings tend to be less resourceful and independent than other family members. They are equally less inclined to take on positions of responsibility and can be more self-centred. However, this often translates into persistence, as they are driven to outdo their siblings.
The only child: creativity and brains
The development of only children is similar to that of first-borns: driven by the need for recognition and attention, they tend to be leaders. According to a study conducted by neuroscientists at Chongqing University in China, the brains of only children are indeed different. Being forced to play alone from an early age is thought to make them more creative and flexible than other children. However, analyses reveal less grey matter in the area dedicated to the regulation of emotions, which indicates that they could be less social. Sébastien, an only child, has noticed these qualities in himself at work. “I think I find it easy to approach people and initiate conversation, but I prefer to go it alone and be independent. At work, it’s like collaborating even slows me down and I don’t always have the patience for others,” he said.
Only children tend to receive a better education than those with siblings and end up in professions that are seen as prestigious, such as law, engineering and medicine. But the cliché that only children are self-absorbed was disproved by another study in 2019, The end of a stereotype: only children are not more narcissistic than people with siblings. Levels of “narcissistic admiration”—the propensity to show off—and “narcissistic rivalry”—comparing oneself to others for reassurance—were even lower than children who had siblings.
Does birth order seal our fate?
If birth order has such an impact on personality, then why don’t Cecilia, a first-born, and Sébastien, an only child, have any interest in trying to impress their superiors? And why does Anna, a middle child, sometimes feel less social than her sisters? Birth order theories, while revealing in certain situations, should always be taken with a pinch of salt because they are near impossible to prove. Furthermore, recent research on the topic has not turned up much in the way of conclusive results. For that to happen, a whole range of criteria, including culture, ethnicity, living standards, gender and age, must be gathered and analysed. That said, first-born siblings might well be more responsible. After all, they have more years of experience under their belts!
Birth order raises key issues regarding human development, but personality remains the sum of many parts. We are all products of our background, choices, relationships and even our hopes and dreams. First-born children are free to experience life abroad and your baby sister or brother is perfectly capable of being a brilliant manager in a multinational company. The sky’s the limit!
Translated by Andrea Schwam
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