We all like to believe that we are masters of our destinies. That obstacles can be overcome, and goals achieved through hard work and dedication. There is a theory that our success may be defined to some degree from the moment we are born.
The Relative Age Effect
As strange as it may sound, your birthday might be the biggest factor in how successful you are in life.
Studies have been done to examine the difference in selection and performance of youths in sport and academia.
Schools and sports teams divide children into groups based on the date of their birth, relative to a cut-off date.
For schools this varies from country to country. For instance, in Singapore the cut-off date is January 1, while in the UK it ranges from March 1 to September 1, depending on location
In what is known as the ‘relative age effect’, children born near the start of the cut-off date are more likely to perform better in both sporting and academic pursuits than their peers born near the end of the cut-off.
The difference in performance is said to be due to the increased maturity and intellectual development of the older children.
Naturally, the older children will be more physically developed as well, allowing them to excel in sports.
In 2013 researchers at Duke University examined data for five cohorts of school children in the US and published their findings in a working paper.
The study showed that ‘those born just after the cut date for starting school are likely to outperform those born just before in reading and math in middle school.’
Their study also showed that older children were also less likely to become juvenile delinquents.
Meanwhile, those born just before the cut-off date were ‘more likely to drop out of high school before graduation and commit a felony offense by age 19.’
The Duke researcher’s results are similar to research published by the UK’s Institute for Fiscal Studies in 2011. The study focused on children in England where the cut-off date is September 1.
A child born on 31 August sitting their GCSEs in 2018 would have turned 15 the day before the school year started. While their September-born classmate would have turned 16 just after school starts.
They discovered that, on average, children born in August – just before England’s cut-off date – are 20% more likely to study for vocational qualifications than their older, September counterparts.
The August-born kids score substantially lower on national achievement tests, have less confidence in their academic ability and are less likely to believe they had control of their own destiny.
Sadly, the younger children were also twice as likely to report being bullied all the time and exhibit lower socio-emotional development.
They are also 20% less likely to attend a top-tier university than their older classmates.
These results are echoed by a 2014 study of Italian students.
The Italian researchers found that ‘younger children score substantially lower than older peers at the fourth, the eighth and the tenth grade.’
The researchers go on to say, ‘The advantage of older students does not dissipate as they grow older.’
Italian secondary school students are also more likely to be tracked into academic schools rather than vocational schools if they are born closer to the beginning of the cut-off date.
The Big Picture
In education systems that use a streaming system based on academic performance at a young age, such as Singapore for example, the relative age effect could be profound.
A Singaporean six-year-old starting primary school born on January 2 will be nearly 17% older than a child in the same cohort born on December 31.
Based on the research we have just touched on, the older child is more likely to perform better academically and therefore be placed into a higher education stream.
As the British researchers discovered, older children are more likely to be emotionally developed, confident in their abilities and feel like they have control of their destiny.
They retain their initial advantage from the relative age effect going into secondary school, leading them to junior college and a faster route to tertiary education, culminating in a head start in their career.
In 2012, researchers at the University of British Columbia examined the birth dates of 375 CEOs from companies listed on the S&P 500 stock market index, between 1992 and 2009.
They found that 5.8 percent were born in June, 6 percent where born in July. March-born CEOs represented 12.5 percent and 10.6 percent were born in April.
In the US, cut-off dates for school vary, ranging from September and January.
According to the researchers, the CEOs born in June and July were the youngest in their class, while the April- and May-born CEOs were the oldest.
Professor Maurice Levi of Saunders Business School in the University of British Columbia said the findings indicate the influence of the relative age effect at CEO level.
Professor Levi says, ‘Early success is often rewarded with leadership roles and enriched learning opportunities, leading to future advantages that are magnified throughout life.’
Levi concludes, ‘We could be excluding some of the business world’s best talent simply by enrolling them in school too early.’
Delaying School Enrolment Is Not a Remedy
‘Academic redshirting’ – the practice of delaying a child’s enrolment in kindergarten or school by a year to try and give them an advantage – is an option some parents take.
Given the disadvantage that the youngest children in classes seem to bear on average, it might appear like the right choice.
However, researchers from the University of Southern California and The University of Texas at Austin seem to disprove this.
They collected and analysed national data of 15,000 26-year-olds over several years. They compared how redshirted kids fared during and after leaving school, versus children who were young for their class but not redshirted.
Their results proved that redshirted kids performing worse on tenth grade tests were twice as likely to drop out of school and less likely to graduate college.
Additionally, a 2008 paper by Harvard economist David Deming and education expert Susan Dynarski found that redshirted kids were more likely to have lower IQs and earn less as an adult.
An Asian Perspective
Of course, these results – focusing on Western countries and therefore Western-style education – most likely carry an element of cultural bias.
With the ‘Tiger Mum’ phenomenon plus extra tuition as standard in most Asian countries, we cannot be sure how relevant these studies are for Asian students.
Some of the research is also based on data which is relatively old and may not reflect the effects of new education systems and teaching methods.
They also fail to account for a whole host of other factors, including a child’s upbringing, home life, family income and so on.
Suffice to say that the research presented should be taken with a grain of salt, especially when considered in an Asian context.