Study: Math Skills at Age 7 Predict How Much Money You'll Make

Kids who were better at reading and math at age seven ended up in a higher socioeconomic class age 42, regardless of what other advantages they had.
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PROBLEM: So far as we're able to predict a child's likelihood of leading a successful life, it's no secret that the assets we're born with (intelligence) or into (socioeconomic status) are important. But to what extent do learned abilities, like basic academic skills, fit into that equation?

METHODOLOGY: This study defines success in terms of socioeconomic status. Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates, of the University of Edinburgh, used data from a cohort of over 17,000 residents of England, Scotland, and Wales who were followed from when they were born to the present day, over 50 years later. They looked at how different measures of success, at various points in the participants' lives, informed one another. Those measures were:

  • Socioeconomic class at birth: whether their parents owned or rented a home, how many rooms said home had, and their father's occupation (more telling, perhaps, in 1958 than it would be now).

  • Reading and math skills at age seven: how they performed on tests and how their teachers rated their interest and ability in the subjects.
  • Intelligence at age 11: their IQ score.

  • Academic motivation at age 16: how strongly they agreed with statements such as, "School is a waste of time." 
  • Socioeconomic status at age 42: what kind of job they held, their income, and their homeowner status.

RESULTS: How much money the people made at midlife was predicted by math ability at age seven, and, for girls only, by early reading ability. The other factors may have helped them on the path to success, but even when those were controlled for, the association between basic math and reading skills and future socioeconomic status remained, and remained significant: one jump in reading level, for example, was associated with an increased midlife salary of about $7,750.

IMPLICATIONS: Regardless of how many advantages we start out with, how long we spend in school, or even how smart we are, learned skills have a measurable effect on adulthood success. That children are taught these skills is undoubtedly important, but these findings also point to a role played by children's innate ability to learn. As a next step, the authors plan to use twin studies to examine the genetic basis of academic ability. They hope to more accurately measure just how much of an impact, down the line, early education and interventions can actually have.

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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