The X Factor
The authors of the Psychological Science paper aren't the first researchers to study childhood factors that lead to financial success or failure in adulthood. There is a similar study showing that parental education level during middle childhood is an excellent indicator of future success [source: Dubow et al.]. Another study says that while your parent's socioeconomic status might help you land your first job, the salary you earn over the course of your career depends more on your overall intelligence [source: Ganzach].
What is unique about Ritchie and Bates' research is that they were able to isolate two seemingly secondary factors — reading level and math performance at 7 years old — and show how these numbers could predict adult success, independent of every other variable.
How clear was the connection between first-grade academics and adult socioeconomic status? Of the 18,000 people in the U.K. study, those who scored in the third quintile (40th to 60th percentile) on math and reading when they were 7 years old attained the exact average socioeconomic status at age 42 [source: Ritchie and Bates]. (Socioeconomic status is scored using a formula that includes gross income, as well as the "class" of occupation and housing.)
For the kids who scored in the top 20 percent in math and reading, the result was adult achievement several notches above their peers. According to the data, an increase of one reading level in the first grade — as indicated by standardized test scores and teacher feedback — translated into income gains of $7,750 at age 42 [source: Mikulak].
In an e-mail from Stuart Ritchie, co-author of the Psychological Science paper, the researcher clarified that childhood reading and math performance were only two of several strong indicators of adult success. The child's original socioeconomic status, intelligence level at age 11, academic motivation at age 16 and total years of education each rate statistically higher than math and reading as predictors of future success.
But the important message of their research is that when all of those other variables are factored out, a child's ability to read and do math at 7 years old still makes a statistically significant difference in the kind of job he or she will work as an adult, and the kind of money he or she will earn.
The next question is, what are the factors that influence childhood reading and math skills, and what is the take-home message for parents and educators?