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Career prospects may be enhanced by reading books Special

By Kimberley Pollock     Apr 15, 2011 in World
An Oxford University cohort study has found that the only extra-curricular activity that positively impacted on a 16-year-old's ability to obtain a professional or managerial career was reading books.
Other activities, such as playing computer games, taking part in sports or activities, socialising, watching films or TV, or practical activities like cooking or sewing, were found to not have a significant effect on their careers.
Mark Taylor, a researcher from the Department of Sociology, used the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) for the basis of the study. The BCS70 is a continuing, multi-disciplinary longitudinal study which takes as its subjects all those living in England, Scotland and Wales who were born in one particular week in April 1970, almost 17,200 people.
Mark compared data from 1986, which gave details of extra-curricular activities at the age of 16, with data from 2003 which contained information about career outcomes at the age of 33.
According to the Oxford media release, his analysis showed that girls who had read books at 16-years-old had a 39 percent probability of a professional or managerial post at age 33, but only a 25 percent chance if they had not read books. For boys who read regularly, the figure went up from 48 percent to 58 percent.
The study also found that reading books increased the chance of students going to university. For 16-year-old children whose parents worked in admin or sales, their chance of going to university went up from 24 per cent to 35 per cent for boys and from 20 percent to 30 percent for girls. In addition, if they read books and also did one other cultural activity, such as playing an instrument or going to museums, the chance rose from 24 per cent to 54 per cent for boys and from 20 per cent to 48 per cent for girls.
On the other hand, playing computer games regularly and doing no other activities reduced their chances from 24 per cent to 19 per cent for boys and from 20 per cent to 14 per cent for girls.
To find out more about Mark’s intriguing research I interviewed him via email.
Why do you think reading was the stand out in terms of making a positive difference to career outcome?
Mark: Some people have argued that this is because reading genuinely makes you smarter, and smarter people have better careers. While there's an element of this, the data shows that it doesn't matter how much you read, only whether you do, which seems to undermine that argument. The alternative account is that reading impresses people - you go to a job interview, you're able to drop names, people think you're the kind of person who they should hire. The fact that people who read as teens don't actually earn any more indicates they're not being promoted as much, which reinforces the idea that they're being hired because they look impressive, not because they genuinely are.
The study looked at career success in terms of professional or managerial careers; can you explain how this was defined? Was success in any other type of career looked at?
Mark: This was a response in the data already so I can't be too specific, but it's basically skilled non-manufacturing jobs; some examples would be anything from CEOs and doctors to teachers and programmers. It excludes things like secretaries and administrators, as well as anything in the manual sector. It's not perfect, but it gives us an idea. The other thing I looked at was salary; no activity had an effect on this (and I'm surprised this hasn't been picked up on!)
Was there any data on whether socio-economic factors impacted on the likelihood of reading and career outcome?
Mark: Yes, and these associations are very strong - socio-economic factors are much stronger predictors of educational attainment and career outcome than anything else, and there's pretty strong associations with reading too. What's interesting, though, is once you control for these, the effects of reading are pretty similar across different groups; the increase in probability of going to uni with reading for a kid from a working class background is the same for a kid from a middle class background.
Did the study look at the type of reading that was undertaken? Eg non-fiction, fiction or other. What impact do you think the type of reading might have?
Mark: There's data on this in the study but it's not fantastic (kids are asked what kind of book they read most recently, and the first category is "novel"...). What's actually interesting is how small the differences that emerge are. You don't see differences between kids reading what we might think of as high-brow literature and, say, sci-fi or fantasy, which I think is one of the more interesting outcomes.
One thing I'd add, though, is that the BCS doesn't just have data on occupational attainment. When I was playing with this a few months ago, I found massive differences in family formation when you stratify by reading genre. For example, I found that kids who read romance novels (almost all girls, unsurprisingly) are *way* more likely to get divorced than are kids who read something else. This is something I haven't looked into properly, so I wouldn't want to make a massive claim about it, but it's a useful reminder that we should be measuring things other than how much money people earn.
The study also found that playing computer games has a negative affect? Can you suggest why this might be?
Mark: Couple of reasons. It's important to remember that these were kids born in 1970, so they're playing games in 1986. There weren't that many kids playing games in 1986 (at least compared to now), and the games they were playing were very different from contemporary games. So it might just be a weird quirk of the data. Remember, "statistically significant" means we only expect it to happen 5% of the time, and maybe this falls into that 5%. Alternatively, maybe kids who got into games around this period didn't feel the need to go to uni. In the UK in 1986 uni was a very academic, as opposed to vocational track, and most game developers who came out of that period didn't go to uni as the skills they needed to learn could best be picked up elsewhere.
Were there any other activities that produced a negative effect on career outcomes?
Mark: I changed some variables into a scale for undirected activity – things which are often characterised as aimless hanging about, such as going to the pub, hanging about the street, etc. We found that there's a negative effect for boys if they do 4 or more of these activities frequently - doing 3 or less is fine. For girls, though, doing any seems to have a negative effect.
There seems to be some significant differences for boys and girls, why do you think this is the case?
Mark: They're mainly structural differences; there's more men than women in managerial and professional jobs in the first place. The most surprising difference was that, when we looked at kids hanging about, it didn't matter if boys did a couple of these things, but if girls did any it was negative. I suspect this is down to society's hypocrisy about letting boys go off and do what they want but not letting girls have their independence as early.
What impact do you think this research might have on society?
Mark: I'm not sure in the long term. After some media picked up on this story, attention was drawn to it by campaigners here in the UK who are fighting to save library provision, which is at risk of serious cuts in the current government. Some schools and educational organisations also seem to be interested, for potentially similar reasons. So hopefully, it'll tie into that sort of narrative. I'm always worried, when doing this kind of research, of getting shut off in the academy, so this sort of focus is great.
Is there any previous or current research that has come up with similar findings?
Mark: Sort of. There's a bunch of people who work on similar questions, most of whom have found similar results, and I wouldn't want to claim that anything I've discovered here is massively revolutionary. You can measure things in different ways, though. What I've done is to think a bit differently about the ways of operationalising different activities (for example, instead of thinking about all different activities as separate, and thinking more in terms of realistic clusters of what kids do...), thinking simultaneously about the effect of reading and other activities on educational attainment and careers, and using the cohort studies rather than retrospective data.
Is there any follow-up research planned?
Mark: Loads! This chapter forms part of my PhD, which is more generally about reading behaviour, and teen leisure etc. Right now I'm working on looking at what determines why people start and stop reading. When a kid didn't read at 12, and they're still not reading at 17, we're not surprised; when a kid read at 12 and was still reading at 17, we're not surprised; when a kid wasn't reading at 12 but had started by 17, and when a kid was reading at 12 but wasn't reading at 17,we're surprised. I'm interested in why these sorts of transitions occur, and whether we can predict them in advance. I'm also looking at how much these effects seem to have varied over time - do the results I've found for my 1970 kids hold for the UK's other major cohort study, the 1958 kids, and does it look like our current kids are going to follow the same pattern?
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