It’s a pet peeve of mine that approximately 90% of American adults now go around claiming to have been “total nerds” in high school. You may want to stop bragging about that, because a new paper finds that the powers of popularity last a lifetime: Popular high-school students earn significantly more than their less-cool peers, even decades after graduation.
Scholars Gabriella Conti, Gerritt Mueller, Andrea Galeotti and Stephen Pudney began with data from a survey of more 10,000 men and women who graduated together from a particular Wisconsin high school. Those students were asked back in 1957 to name three people who they considered their closest friends. The students who had their names written down most frequently were designated as the most popular.
You could quibble with this methodology because it’s possible to have lots of friends in high school and still not be cool per se, but this is probably a better way of assessing what popularity actually is: It means you have a lot of friends.
Anyway, the researchers went on to look at data collected over the course of the five decades following graduation. They found that 35 years after graduation, popular students earned 2% more than their peers. As Ezra Klein explains, that’s almost half of the benefit that students get from finishing an extra year of education.
And if a student were to move from the 20th popularity percentile — the true nerd class — up to the 80th percentile — bona fide cool kid — their salary would be 10% higher. That was true even when researchers accounted for variables including school quality, cognitive ability, and family background.
At first, this might seem shockingly counterintuitive: The popular kids at my school weren’t geniuses, after all. And what about those nerdy future engineers, destined for high salaries later in life?
First, allow me to vent: The definition of “nerd” has been watered down. You probably weren’t actually a nerd in high school. You may have been a smart kid, you may have liked studying, and you may not have been homecoming queen. But real nerddom is something more harrowing than that. “Nerds” — by the definition used in this study — have few friends, and suffer real social ostracization. That may keep them indoors studying (hello, future income!), but it also may make them depressed and with few opportunities to practice the social skills they obviously haven’t picked up by instinct. If you think back to who the real nerds were in high school, they probably weren’t the cheerful band of science geeks. They were the loners you were hardly aware of.
With that in mind, the researchers’ guesses about why “popular” kids get rich aren’t so susprising: As Klein summarizes it, “The traits that make a student better-liked are pretty similar to those that make one successful in the workforce.” Popularity is a measurement of the social skills that make you not just a cool kid, but a savvy employee.
In the movies, the popular kids rarely win in the end: They either stop caring about popularity per se (Mean Girls) or they suffer horribly for their shallowness (Heathers). In real life, however, the cool kids seem to glide through life just find. The only consolation is that you were probably one of them — you just didn’t know it at the time.