Popular Kids Paid More as Adults, Study Finds

Nerd or Homecoming King: Which one will make more money as an adult?

In earning power, kings rule. That's the conclusion of four scholars writing under the aegis of National Bureau of Economic Research (the entity that decides, officially, when recessions start and end).

Their paper, 'Popularity.' finds that the more friends you had in high school, the greater will be your earning power later on in life.

To arrive at that conclusion, the researchers dove into a body of data called the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study (WLS), which, according to its website, is a long-term study of a random sample of 10,317 men and women who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957. A wide range of information about this group has been compiled from the inception of the study through 2008.

The scholars restricted their analysis to 4,330 white, male WLS respondents. "Our main variables of interest," they write, "are adolescent friendship ties and adult earnings."

To quantify those friendship ties (i.e., a respondent's popularity) they looked to see how many 'friendship nominations' a student had received. Apparently if you went to school in Wisconsin in the '50s, you could list the names of fellow students whom you considered to be your friends (a form of 'friending' long before anyone imagined Facebook).

The scholars determined which students in the sample had amassed the most nominations. They then looked at the earning power of these same students in adult life.

Their conclusion: The popular kids earned more than their unpopular peers. How much more? "The popularity premium is substantial," the authors write. "An increase in the stock of popularity, measured by an additional friendship nomination received in high school, is associated with about 2 percent higher wages 35 years later." That premium, they write, is roughly equivalent to the benefit enjoyed by students who gained another year of schooling.

Let's say you were unpopular, and that the Popularity Fairy appeared in class one day and bopped you with her wand, making you suddenly popular. How would that affect your earning power later? "We estimate that moving from the 20th to the 80th percentile of the high school popularity distribution yields a 10 percent wage premium nearly 40 years later."

They advance several theories for this phenomena, including that the social connections made by popular students might somehow later serve them in their working lives (that if you're in the old boys' network and if you're liked by more old boys, you tend to make more money).

But the theory they like better is that the traits that make someone likeable in high school probably are indistinguishable from the traits that make that same person likeable later on in the workplace. In both arenas, they write, the better-liked tend to be the more successful.