Dr Robert de Vries on the background to his new research on character traits and social mobility.
The link between academic attainment and subsequent career success is pretty clear-cut. If you get good grades at school, you’ll be able to get a place at a top university. If you get a good degree, you’re more likely to access a high-paying job. But much less is known about how intangible qualities, such as confidence, aspiration and social skills, affect your chances of securing a high-paying job, and the extent to which they may be helping or hindering social mobility
For A Winning Personality, Dr Jason Rentfrew from the University of Cambridge and I used data from the BBC’s Big Personality Test and a review of the existing evidence to find out whether there is a link between certain social skills, professional outcomes and family background.
Together, these two sources of information highlighted significant relationships between family background and several key non-cognitive characteristics, and between these characteristics and subsequent career success.
In terms of personality, our literature review identified three character traits as particularly beneficial for career success: extraversion – or sociability, confidence and assertiveness, self-esteem and a positive outlook. We also found that having an external locus of control – or a belief that your successes and failures are outside of your own control – was particularly detrimental.
Our analysis of the BBC data – which allowed us to have an unusually large data sample of over 150,000 – confirmed the importance of extraversion. We found that highly extraverted people had a 25% higher chance of being in a job that paid more than £40,000 per year, with the odds being greater for men than women.
So what factors are instilling this greater confidence and enabling careers to flourish? Family background is one. For a number of reasons extraverted adults were more likely to come from comfortable backgrounds – which we defined as having parents with professional jobs – than those who did not share this personality trait.
In addition, aspirations in almost all areas of life were significantly higher for respondents who grew up in comfortable homes. Out of aesthetic, social, hedonistic, religious and relationship aspirations, religious goals were the only ones not to differ significantly by social background. Men’s economic aspirations and women’s aesthetic aspirations – or their desire to create good artistic work – were found to be the most influenced by social background.
The clear correlation between personality traits, career success and family background tells us that this is definitely a social mobility issue. Not only are children from better-off homes more likely to attend high-performing schools, live in homes conducive to learning and receive private tuition, but they’re also more likely to develop personality traits like extraversion that are beneficial in the workplace. They’re the confident, assertive, sociable ones who get the better jobs.
With non-cognitive skills becoming increasingly important in the labour market, as confirmed by David Deming’s recent Harvard research, what can we do to address the disadvantages that poorer young people face?
Schools have an important role to play. Careers advisers should improve knowledge and awareness of top professional careers amongst less advantaged students, allowing for high, but realistic, aspirations. We need to do more to improve young people’s ability to do well in job interviews, showing them how to improve with mock interviews and video playback, for example. Intervention programmes aimed at improving outcomes for disadvantaged young people need to be more holistic, focusing on developing students’ personalities and fostering the confidence to succeed.
The Sutton Trust sends thousands of students on summer school programmes to the best British and American universities which help build aspirations and confidence, but we need more opportunities like this across the system if we are to make sure that all young people have the skills they need to flourish.
Dr Robert de Vries is Lecturer in Quantitative Sociology and the University of Kent and a former Sutton Trust research fellow.