In which the cool don't rule (after school)

Finally, a real scientific study has proved true what we’ve secretly known all along: that being cool in high school does not make you cool in later life. 

Published last week in journal Child Development, the 10-year study on students from the age of 13 up to 23 looked at “pseudomature behaviours” – acting older than one’s age in a variety of romantic, social and delinquent ways. Findings showed that while the rebellious kids were more likely to be popular among peers at 13, all that behind-the-bike-sheds kudos declined over time and actually ended up having an inverse effect, with formerly ‘cool’ teens struggling to make friends by the time they reached their early 20s. 

It’s the kind of news that makes you want to rush back in time and tell your former awkward young self that it’ll all be ok. “Hey Lauren,” I’d whisper to 13-year-old me as she turned down an invitation to drink Bacardi Breezers in a park to spend an evening working on her poetry journal. “It’s fine, those are not your people. Give it a few years and you’ll have legal access to all the sugary booze you could not want; but also legitimately great friends to not drink it with.”

Then 13-year-old Lauren would smile a big, gap-toothed smile (like all the coolest people, I didn’t finish losing my milk teeth until well into adolescence) and we would high-five before I faded into the sunset. It would make a brilliant film. You’d go and see it, wouldn’t you, because chances are you weren’t a cool kid either.

If I’m honest, I’ve never trusted people who were popular at school. Without a good dose of pubescent humiliation, how would you discover who your real friends were? How would you give one of those humble interviews when you’re a wildly successful adult, talking about how the bullies ultimately made you a stronger person? Of course it would be heaps better if there were no bullies at all - but then maybe that would make us ALL popular kids, doomed to failed relationships as soon as we hit our twenties.

And while there’s a genuine argument for encouraging children to stay children for as long as possible, plenty of us non-populars were precocious in our own ways too. In fact I’d say much of my own teenage behaviour was so pseudomature that it skipped right past the drinking and fumbling stages and left me about 38 inside, wryly observing the world from the edge of the party and refusing to engage with anything I deemed a ‘teenage cliché’. Among the clichés I rejected: were recreational drinking, under-18 discos, owning a mobile phone before 2003, and talking to boys. Any boys.

It’s possible, thinking back on it now, that all of this painful cynicism was a much greater effort on the part of coolness than it would have been just to go and sit in the park with the others. So maybe we should cut the popular kids some slack –they probably care far less about it than the rest of us do

Me First and the Gimmee Gimmees

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.