The year is 1958, and two boys are born on the very same day into very different circumstances. One boy is raised by humble farmers in rural Scotland. Neither of his parents went to college, and the boy attends the local public school. The second boy grows up in a Georgian mansion in London, raised by Oxford-educated parents and enrolled in the best private schools.
What does the future hold for these boys? Is one fated for success and the other for mediocrity? And what might math skills have to do with it?
These hypothetical boys are representatives of a real study of more than 17,000 children born during the same week in 1958 in England, Scotland and Wales (as well as 920 immigrant babies born that week). For more than 50 years, the U.K.'s Economic and Social Data Service has tracked the progress of these individuals from birth through school and well into their careers through the National Child Development Study.
In 2012, two researchers at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, analyzed the reams of data from this 50-year study to determine which variables of early life are the clearest indicators of future success. Is your adult socioeconomic status largely determined by the wealth of your parents? Is innate intelligence the best predictor of success in school? Do people who stay in school longer earn better salaries?
Specifically, the Edinburgh researchers wanted to measure the strength of the relationship between early childhood academic performance and adult socioeconomic status. Their hypothesis, based on previous studies, was that childhood math and reading skills are indicators of later academic achievement.Greater academic achievement leads to more marketable skills; and better skills leads to a well-paying job, a nicer house and other worldly signs of success. Numeracy, in particular, has been associated with better decision-making in a person's finances.
The researchers, Stuart Ritchie and Timothy Bates, published their findings in the May 2013 edition of Psychological Science, and their conclusions were surprising. Whether you are born rich or poor, and regardless of your overall IQ, your math and reading level at 7 years old is a reliable predictor of future success.