We’ve all heard the theory that after high-school, when you get out in the ‘real world,’ it’s time for the revenge of the nerds.

You know the story: All those unpopular, studious types from school would suddenly be running software companies or making piles of money as engineers and actuaries. This while their cool-kid tormentors end up stuck in menial jobs daydreaming about the glory days when they simultaneously won the football championship game while dating the prom queen and shoving nerds into garbage cans.

Having not been the coolest kid in my graduating class, I like this story. It’s encouraging for us nerds everywhere to think that we will win in the end. The geek will inherit the Earth. However, it turns out that it’s not true. The popular kids are still on top after high school, actually earning higher salaries throughout their careers too.

A new research paper by the US National Bureau of Economic Research followed 10,000 high school graduates for roughly forty years to measure the correlation between their popularity in high school and their earning potential afterwards. I found this story via the Washington Post.

They measure ‘popularity’ in the purest sense of the word – by measuring how many friends each person had. They asked each student to write down the names of all the people they were friends with – and cross referenced all the lists. The people who were named the most often had the most friends and were therefore deemed the most popular. Those who turned up on few friends list were considered unpopular.

Over the course of their careers, the more popular students earn 2% higher salaries than the average of their peers. When you compare just the most popular students’ salaries to the least popular students,’ the difference is a more striking 10% premium for the former cool kids.

Of course, having no friends isn’t exactly equivalent with being a ‘nerd.’ Nerds can have lots of friends; they’re just other nerds. The cool kids might have a small group of friends – they’re just the narrow clique that identifies itself as ‘popular.’

Since this study measures popularity by how many friends you have – the results are actually not that surprising. There’s likely a reason why no one (or very few people) in a school would list someone as one of their friends. That person could be terribly shy and keep completely to themselves. They could be lacking in basic social skills necessary to get along with others. There are any number of reasons, but the fact is that too succeed in almost any career path, a certain amount of sociability is necessary.

People who were lacking social skills in high school, and didn’t learn to make friends from a young age, start out with a disadvantage. A disadvantage that can affect their earning potential throughout their careers.

Surviving the social minefield of high school can “train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles,” say the report’s authors. “Consistent with our view, we interpret our measure of popularity as a measure of the stock of social skills of a particular individual.”

As we said in an earlier article, likeability can be almost as important as actual ability for career success.

Source: The Washington Post – Sorry, nerds: Popular kids earn more in the long run


Peter Harris
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