Popularity and Pay: Was Willy Loman Right About Being Well-Liked?

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Is life one long popularity contest? A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that, to a surprising extent, it really is: examining the lives of a large cohort of Wisconsinites who graduated from high school in 1957, they found that the most popular boys in high school tended, over the course of their lifetimes, to significantly outearn those who struggled to find dates for the prom.  Sad news indeed for those sitting in class today bitterly cultivating wild “revenge of the nerds” fantasies of triumph and revenge. Or is it?

Researchers Gabriella Conti, Gerritt Mueller, Andrea Galeotti and Stephen Pudney relied on the extensive data collected as part of the Wisconsin Longitudinal Study, which followed the lives of 10,000 Wisconsinites over the course of their careers from high school in the age of Elvis to the early 1990s.

In true nerdy fashion, the NBER researchers determined high school popularity by crunching numbers. As part of the original WLS survey, students were asked to name their three best friends; the  NBER researchers added up how many times individual students were named as friends to figure out just who was popular and who wasn’t. Crunching numbers further, they found that popularity paid off quite handsomely over the long run. As the researchers put it, albeit a bit dryly,

an increase in the stock of popularity, measured by an additional friendship nomination received in high-school, is associated with about 2% higher wages 35 years later.

When you compare the most and the least popular, the effects are even more stark. Those in the top quintile of the “high-school popularity distribution” earned 10% more than those in the lowest quintile nearly 40 years after graduation.

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So why is this? The researchers suggest that the social skills that people learn in high school enable them to more deftly navigate the world of work over the course of their careers:

[I]nteractions within the group of classmates provide the bridge to the adult world as they train individual personalities to be socially adequate for the successful performance of their adult roles. … It is the productive skill itself that is rewarded in the labor market, rather than friendships per se.

It’s a little disconcerting to see a serious academic paper that seems to prove that poor, sad Willy Loman was right when he insisted, so famously, in Death of a Salesman, that “the man who creates personal interest, is the man who gets ahead. Be liked and you will never want.”

While cleverly constructed, the NBER paper is hardly the final word on the subject. It is, after all, only an examination of one group of boys (who became men) over a stretch of time in the mid to late twentieth century. These were the men – and the NBER researchers only looked at males — who entered the workforce in what you might call the Mad Men years, when many professions were dominated by old boys clubs that put a great premium on glad-handing affability.

Would the results have been the same had they looked at students graduating from high school in 1973, the year a fellow named Bill Gates graduated from Lakeside High School in Seattle and a year before he founded a company then called Micro-soft?

Maybe I’m being a bit unfair with that question. If popularity in high school does indeed involve the same sorts of skills that enable people to be savvy networkers on the job – and it almost certainly does, to some degree – there’s every reason to think that it will make the same sort of difference to the class of 2012 as it did to the class of 1957.

But the researchers’ definition of popularity will need a bit of updating. These days popularity isn’t just measured by old-fashioned, real-world friendships; it’s also measured by “friendings” on Facebook, followers on Twitter, Klout scores, you name it, in the digital world. Interpersonal charm may end up mattering less than one’s ability to create and spread interesting or amusing memes on the internet.

Popularity, in 1950s-era Wisconsin, was all about fitting into a largely homogeneous world; these days it may be more about standing out in an overcluttered digital landscape that is anything but homogeneous.

Maybe high school students today should forget about the football team or the debate club and start perfecting their 140-character quips.

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