The recipe for success has apparently been discovered, and it is this: be female, and be born first.
Published last week, a revelatory new study by Feifei Bu at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, University of Essex, has shown that if you are the eldest child and female, you are statistically more likely to excel in work and education than the rest of your family – followed in second place, 13 per cent behind, by eldest male siblings. It has proven scientifically what firstborn kids have smugly told themselves for eons: that they’re top dogs.
That we’re top dogs, I could say, because I’m the eldest of three (would I have picked this topic if I weren’t?). I’m in good company; Angela Merkel, Hillary Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Christine Lagarde, JK Rowling and Beyoncé are all firstborns, as are more than half of all Nobel prizewinners and all 12 men who have landed on the moon.
The majority of my friends are eldest children too, which I’ve always thought was far too disproportionate to be random. Perhaps we’ve been drawn together, unwittingly, by our burning ambition and the sort of delusional self-assurance that comes from never having worn hand-me-down school uniform.
You can see how it works. For the formative years, eldest children are going to be the best at everything simply because they are also the first at everything. “Look at me, walking!” it’s easy to brag to the sibling who can’t yet hold their own head up. “Got a gold star on my Romans topic book!” you can boast freely when the only point of family comparison is studiously gumming their own toes.
But then it sticks, and trailblazing becomes a default setting you can’t quite switch off. Once you’re out in the world, without siblings to put you in a headlock or give you a humbling wedgie, that invisible ‘No.1’ badge can become an albatross round your neck. “Go forth! Conquer! Do ALL the things!” shouts firstborn expectation, in a voice that sounds suspiciously like our own.
If we’re statistically most likely to be ambitious, I’d wager we’re also most likely to suffer from anxiety and fear that things will all go wrong. Or a sense of total failure when they do all go wrong. Being eldest usually means falling out of the nest first, so it’s unsurprising when we end up flapping.
It’s not all top jobs and PhDs, either. Firstborn children are also twice as likely to become caregivers to our parents – that competitive streak sees us right through to middle age, but it has a nurturing side too – and according to a study by the University of Auckland, we’re more likely to be overweight in later life. Which is probably either from stress eating, or all those state banquets.