Working Paper

The Birth Order Effect: A Modern Phenomenon?

Published: 2022

Non-technical summary

Studies on modern families in Europe and the U.S. find that higher birth order is associated with lower educational attainment and wages. In this study, we investigate the existence and the evolution of the ‘birth order effect’ in labour market outcomes in a historical setting using data from the 19th century Netherlands. Using historical family-linked administrative birth, death, and marriage records spanning more than 70 years, we analyze the role of family composition and socioeconomic status on occupational differences among siblings.

Consistent with findings in modern developed countries, we find a negative birth order effect in occupational rank in the mid-19th century Netherlands. That is, within the same family, latter-born children are less likely to be employed in a non-manual occupation and have a lower ranked occupation compared to their older siblings. This negative birth order effect is primarily driven by the number of male older siblings and a strong positive first-born effect. The birth order effect is more pronounced among urban, protestant, and socioeconomically advantaged families. Surprisingly, the size of the birth order effects remains relatively stable over a period a rapid economic growth in the Netherlands, with increasing first-born advantage over time in urban areas. Taken together, our findings suggest that differences in the direction of birth order effects observed between modern developed and developing countries may not be explained by economic growth.


Lehmann J.Nuevo-Chiquero A.Vidal-Fernández M.

Nuevo-Chiquero, A., Vidal-Fernandez, M. & Lehmann, J. (2022). ‘The Birth Order
Effect: A Modern Phenomenon?’, Life Course Centre Working Paper Series, 2022-18. Institute for Social
Science Research, The University of Queensland