A poor bookie?

This column originally appeared in The Observer magazine/Guardian online

What is your earning potential across your entire lifespan, and how is this affected by your childhood? To find out, simply answer these two questions about your home at age 10:

  1. Did you live in an urban or rural area?
  2. How many (non-school) books were there in the house: (a) 0-10 or (b) 11 or more?

A recent report by the World Economic Forum found that, on average, an additional year of education boosts lifetime earnings by around 9% (because the study was looking at lifetime earnings, it was restricted to those already in, or nearing, retirement*). But these gains were not evenly spread: An additional year of education was associated with a 21% gain in lifetime earnings for those with 11 or more books at home, but only a 5% gain for those with 10 or fewer. Furthermore, the gains associated with having more books at home were greater for those raised in the countryside than urban areas. Of course, we have no idea whether the (then-) children actually read those books more than half-a-century ago. Perhaps having more books is simply a sign of affluence? But one reason to doubt this objection is that over 50% of “blue collar” homes were in the 11-books-or-more category, suggesting that children whose families value books – regardless of income – are indeed able to benefit more from school.


*It was also restricted to men, presumably because – in at least some of the countries studied – it was relatively uncommon for women to work full time in the relevant era.


A fully referenced version of this article is available at benambridge.com. Order Psy-Q by Ben Ambridge (Profile Books, £8.99) for £6.99 at bookshop.theguardian.com

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