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A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Become

Written by Dalton ConleyAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Dalton Conley


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On Sale: February 25, 2009
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-48945-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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The family is our haven, the place where we all start off on equal footing — or so we like to think. But if that’s the case, why do so many siblings often diverge widely in social status, wealth, and education? In this groundbreaking and meticulously researched book, acclaimed sociologist Dalton Conley shatters our notions of how our childhoods affect us, and why we become who we are. Economic and social inequality among adult siblings is not the exception, Conley asserts, but the norm: over half of all inequality is within families, not between them. And it is each family’s own “pecking order” that helps to foster such disparities. Moving beyond traditionally accepted theories such as birth order or genetics to explain family dynamics, Conley instead draws upon three major studies to explore the impact of larger social forces that shape each family and the individuals within it.

From Bill and Roger Clinton to the stories of hundreds of average Americans, here we are introduced to an America where class identity is ever changing and where siblings cannot necessarily follow the same paths. This is a book that will forever alter our idea of family.


An Introduction to the Pecking Order

Let me start with a story.

Once upon a time a future president was born. William Jefferson Blythe IV entered the world one month premature but at a healthy six pounds and eight ounces. At twenty-three, his mother, Virginia, was young by today's standards, but perhaps a touch old for Arkansas in the 1940s. She was a widow, so times were tight during Bill's early years. In fact, times would be tough during all of Bill's childhood. Nonetheless, he seemed destined for great things. According to family lore, in second grade Bill's teacher "predicted that he would be President someday."[1]

His mother eventually married Roger Clinton, but that didn't make life any easier for Bill. Roger was a bitterly jealous alcoholic who often became physically abusive to his wife. Bill cites the day that he stood up to his stepfather as the most important marker in his transition to adulthood and perhaps in his entire life. In 1962, when Bill was sixteen, Virginia finally divorced Roger, but by then there was another Roger Clinton in the family, Bill's younger half brother.

Though Bill despised his stepfather, he still went to the Garland County courthouse and changed his last name to Clinton after his mother's divorce from the man--not for the old man's sake, but so that he would have the same last name as the younger brother he cherished. Though they were separated by ten years, were only half siblings, and ran in very different circles, the brothers were close. The younger Roger probably hated his father more than Bill did, but he nonetheless started to manifest many of the same traits as he came of age. He was a fabulous salesman: at age thirteen, he sold twice as many magazines as any of his classmates for a school project, winning a Polaroid camera and a turkey for his superior effort. He also had an affinity for substance abuse: by eighteen, he was heavily into marijuana. During Bill's first (unsuccessful) congressional campaign in 1974, Roger spent much of his time stenciling signs while smoking joints in the basement of campaign headquarters.

As Bill's political fortunes rose, Roger's prospects first stagnated and then sank. He tried his hand at a musical career, worked odd jobs, and eventually got into dealing drugs. And it was not just pot; in 1984, then-governor Bill Clinton was informed that his brother was a cocaine dealer under investigation by the Arkansas state police. The governor did not stand in the way of a sting operation, and Roger was caught on tape boasting how untouchable he was as the brother of the state's chief executive. Then the axe fell. After his arrest, Roger was beside himself in tears, threatening suicide for the shame he had brought upon his family--in particular, his famous brother. Upon hearing this threat Bill shook Roger violently. (He, in truth, felt responsible for his brother's slide.)

The next January, Roger was sentenced to a two-year prison term in a federal corrections facility in Fort Worth, Texas. Bill describes the whole ordeal as the most difficult episode of his life. David Maraniss--the author of First in His Class, the most comprehensive biography of Clinton to date--summarizes the family situation as follows:

How could two brothers be so different: the governor and the coke dealer, the Rhodes scholar and the college dropout, one who tried to read three hundred books in three months and another who at his most addicted snorted cocaine sixteen times a day, one who could spend hours explaining economic theories and another whose economic interests centered on getting a new Porsche? In the case of the Clinton brothers, the contrasts become more understandable when considered within the context of their family history and environment. They grew up in a town of contrast and hypocrisy, in a family of duality and conflict. Bill and Roger were not so much opposites as two sides of the same coin.[2]

If asked to explain why Bill succeeded where Roger failed, most people will immediately point to genetic differences. After all, they were only half siblings to begin with. Others will pin it on birth order, claiming that firstborns are more driven and successful. But both of these accounts rely on individual explanations--ones particular to the unique biology or psychology of Bill and Roger--and both are incomplete. Was Bill more favored and more driven because he was a firstborn? My research shows that in families with two kids, birth order does not really matter that much. In fact, just under one-fourth of U.S. presidents were firstborns--about what we would expect from chance. The fact is that birth position only comes into play in larger families. But what about genes: was Bill simply luckier in the family gene pool? That may be so, but it still does not explain why sibling disparities are much more common in poor families and broken homes than they are in rich, intact families. In fact, when families have limited resources, the success of one sibling often generates a negative backlash among the others.

Sure, if one kid is born a mathematical genius and the other with no talents whatsoever, their respective dice may be cast at birth. But for most of us, how genes matter depends on the social circumstances around us. A child in one family may be born with innate athletic talent that is never nurtured because the parents in that family value reading ability over all else. Yet in another family, the fit between the individual talents of a particular child--say spatial reasoning--and the values of the parents may be perfect, and those abilities are realized. Finally, what kind of rewards talent brings depends entirely on the socioeconomic structure of the time. Fifty years ago, musical talent might have led to a decent living. Today--in an economy that rewards the most popular musicians handsomely at the expense of everyone else--innate musical ability is more often a route to financial struggle.

In Bill Clinton's case, he obviously had good genes--which contributed to his sharp mind, quick wit, tall stature, and verbal charisma--but there was not much advantage to being the firstborn. What really made a difference in his life was the good fit between his particular talents, the aspirations of those around him, and the political opportunities in a small state like Arkansas. This good fit combined with his family's lack of economic resources to generate an enormous sibling difference in success. However, had Virginia had money, she might not have had to put all her eggs--all her hopes and dreams--in Bill's basket. She might have been able to actively compensate for Bill's success by giving Roger extra financial and nonfinancial support--sending him, for example, to an elite private school when he started to veer off track. Instead, Bill's success seemed to come at the expense of Roger's--particularly when it led Roger to a false sense of invincibility.

On the surface, it may seem that the case of the Clintons is atypical. And, of course, a pair of brothers who are, respectively, the president and an ex-con is a bit extreme. But the basic phenomenon of sibling differences in success that the Clintons represent is not all that unusual. In fact, in explaining economic inequality in America, sibling differences represent about three-quarters of all the differences between individuals. Put another way, only one-quarter of all income inequality is between families. The remaining 75 percent is within families.[3] Sibling differences in accumulated wealth (i.e., net worth) are even greater, reaching 90-plus percent.[4] What this means is that if we lined everyone in America up in rank order of how much money they have--from the poorest homeless person to Bill Gates himself--and tried to predict where any particular individual might fall on that long line, then knowing about what family they came from would narrow down our uncertainty by about 25 percent (in the case of income). In other words, the dice are weighted by which family you come from, but you and your siblings still have to roll them. For example, if you come from a family that ranks in the bottom 5 percent of the income hierarchy, then you have a 40 percent chance of finding yourself in the lowest 10 percent, a 21 percent chance of making it to somewhere between the 30th and 70th percentile, and only a one in a thousand chance of making it to the top 10 percent. If you come from the richest 5 percent of families in America, then your odds are flipped. And if you start at the dead middle of the American income ladder, then you are about 63 percent likely to end up somewhere in that 30th- to 70th-percentile range, with a 4 percent chance of ending up either in the top or the bottom 10 percent.[5] A similar pattern holds for educational differences. For example, if you attended college there is almost a 50 percent chance that one of your siblings did not (and vice versa).[6]

What do sibling disparities as large as these indicate? They imply an American landscape where class identity is ever changing and not necessarily shared between brothers and sisters. Taken as a whole, the above statistics present a starkly darker portrait of American family life than we are used to. We want to think that the home is a haven in a heartless world. The truth is that inequality starts at home. These statistics also pose problems for those concerned with what seems to be a marked erosion of the idealized nuclear family. In fact, they hint at a trade-off between economic opportunity and stable, cohesive families.

While it may be surprising to realize how common sibling inequality is on the whole, my analysis of national data shows that Americans are quite aware of sibling disparities within their own families. For instance, when given a choice of fourteen categories of kin ranging from parents to grandparents to spouses to uncles, a whopping 34 percent of respondents claimed that a sibling was their most economically successful relative. When the question is flipped, 46 percent of respondents report a sibling being their least successful relative. Both these figures dwarf those for any other category.[7] When respondents were asked to elaborate about why their most successful relative got that way, their most common answer was a good work ethic (24.5 percent); when we add in other, related categories like "responsible, disciplined," "perseverance, motivation," or "set goals, had a plan," the total is well over half of all responses. Contrast that with the 22.6 percent that covers all categories of what might be called socioeconomic influences, such as "inheritance," "coming from a family with money," "marrying money," and so on. When accounting for the success of our kin, individual characterological explanations win out.

The pattern becomes even more striking when we flip the question to ask about the misfortune of the least successful relative. Only 9.6 percent of respondents cite social forces like poverty, lack of opportunity, or the pitfalls of a particular field as an explanation. Meanwhile, a whopping 82.4 percent cite individualistic reasons--having a "bad attitude" or "poor emotional or mental health." The single largest category was "lack of determination."[8]

That shows us how harsh we are on our brothers and sisters. Are we fair when we pass this kind of judgment, or terribly biased? I think the latter. In this book I challenge the perceived split between individual personality-based explanations for success and failure, and sociological ones. I argue that in each American family there exists a pecking order between siblings--a status hierarchy, if you will. This hierarchy emerges over the course of childhood and both reflects and determines the siblings' positions in the overall status ordering in society. It is not just the will of the parents or the "natural" abilities of the children themselves that determines who is on top in the family pecking order; the pecking order is conditioned by the swirling winds of society, which envelop the family. Gender expectations, the economic cost of schooling in America, a rising divorce rate, geographic mobility, religious and sexual orientations--all of these societal issues weigh in heavily on the pecking order between siblings. In other words, in order to truly understand the pecking orders within American families, you cannot view them in isolation from the larger economy and social structures in which we live. The family is, in short, no shelter from the cold winds of capitalism; rather it is part and parcel of that system. What I hope you end up with is a nuanced understanding of how social sorting works--in America writ large, and in your family writ small. And just maybe--along the way--we will all have a little more sympathy for our less fortunate brothers and sisters.

Who Gets Ahead?

Books about siblings debate why children raised by the same parents in the same house under the same circumstances turn out differently--sometimes very differently. They offer genetic explanations, or focus on birth order or the quality of parenting. The Pecking Order takes all these issues into account, but, based on years of research with three separate studies, it now moves us beyond those factors. Why is there a pecking order in American families, and how does it work? The reasons go way beyond relationships between family members. Americans like to think that their behavior and their destiny are solely in their own hands. But the pecking order, like other aspects of the social fabric, ends up being shaped by how society works.

In fact, siblings serve merely as a tool by which I hope to shed light on why some of us are rich and others poor; on why some are famous and others in America are anonymous. However, in figuring this all out, we do not gain much traction by comparing Bill Clinton with Joe Q. Public, Bill Gates with the average reader of this book, or any pair of randomly associated people. Some books tell you that the best way to understand why one person succeeds and another does not is to examine big amorphous categories like class or economics or race. I say the best way to do it is to examine differences within families, specifically to compare siblings with one another. Only by focusing in on the variety of outcomes that arise within a given family can we gain a real understanding of the underlying forces, of the invisible hands of the marketplace, that push each of us onto our chosen (or assigned) path in life. Siblings provide a natural experiment of sorts. They share much of their genetic endowment.[9 ]They also share much of the same environment. So it's logical to ask: how and why is it that some siblings end up in radically different positions in life? If we find an answer to that question, I think we will understand something very fundamental to American life.


1. David Maraniss, First in His Class: The Biography of Bill Clinton (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), p. 424.

2. Ibid.

3. This is represented by 1 - R2S (where R2 is the square of the sibling correlation coefficient in log-income). Mary Corcoran, Roger Gordon, Deborah Laren, and Gary Solon estimate a brother-brother correlation in permanent income of .45 using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics. See page 364 of their "Effects of Family and Community Background on Economic Status," American Economic Review 80 (1990): 362-66. Their estimates for women's sibling correlations in family income is .276 and .534 for men's log-earnings. (Gary Solon, Mary Corcoran, Roger Gordon, and Deborah Laren, "A Longitudinal Analysis of Sibling Correlation in Economic Status," Journal of Human Resources 26 [1992]: 509-34.) Sibling resemblance for other outcomes like welfare usage, education, and occupation follow similar patterns and are sensitive to the specification deployed--particularly for nonlinear measures. For example, if a woman's sister has received welfare, she is over three times more likely to use it herself (.66 versus .20 probability in their PSID sample). Differences for "persistent participation" in welfare programs by sibling welfare status are even greater. When I reanalyze more recent waves of PSID data--in which the siblings are on average older and more stable economically--I find that the sibling correlation has not changed much overall, but notably for sisters (see Dalton Conley, "Sibling Correlations in Socio-Economic Status: Results on Education, Occupation, Income and Wealth," working paper, Center for Advanced Social Science Research, New York University, 2003). The sibling correlation is .449 for the natural logarithm of brothers' income-to-needs ratio (slightly lower for log-income); for sisters the correlation in log-income-to-needs is .555. (It is .517 for all siblings). For sisters the total (logged) family income correlation (as contrasted to the logged income-to-needs ratio) is .508, significantly higher than the figure of .276 reported by Solon, Corcoran, Gordon, and Laren in their "A Longitudinal Analysis."

4. For the natural logarithm of total net worth (i.e., accumulated wealth minus debts), sibling correlations are .224 for all siblings, .239 for brothers, and .271 for sisters (Conley, "Sibling Correlations"). In this analysis, those with negative or zero net worth are set to zero on the log scale. This approach yields the highest sibling correlation between randomly selected adult siblings in the 2001 wave of the PSID. Correlations are not much different for other recent waves.

5. These probabilities come from table 4 in Solon, Corcoran, Gordon, and Laren, "A Longitudinal Analysis," 526.

6. The actual figure is a .48 probability that a randomly selected sibling of an individual who graduated from a four-year college will not have graduated. This result comes from analysis of the 2001 wave of the Panel of Income Dynamics (see Conley, "Sibling Correlations"). Daphne Kuo and Robert Hauser analyze the Occupational Changes in a Generation (OCG) survey data and find that for education, sibling differences (within-family variance components) for various age groups of black and white brothers range between 38 percent and 52 percent. (See Kuo and Hauser, "Trends in the Family Effects on the Education of Black and White Brothers," Sociology of Education 68 [1995]: 136-60.) In the PSID, I find a lower degree of sibling resemblance in education level (measured as a continuous variable from 1 to 17 years of schooling). The correlation coefficient for siblings in the 2001 wave is .429. For brothers it is .529, and for sisters it is .400. These correlations, when squared, imply a less robust within-family component than found by Kuo and Hauser. Likewise, one-quarter of sibling pairs in the Study of American Families diverge substantially in terms of the prestige of their jobs. ("Substantial" means the difference between a professional such as a lawyer or businessman, on the one hand, and a salesclerk or blue-collar worker on the other.) In the PSID, the sibling correlation in 2001 occupational prestige is only .225 for sisters, .302 for brothers, and .233 for all siblings (Conley, "Sibling Correlations").

7. These results come from analysis of the Study of American Families.

8. These data come from the GSS-SAF survey. People may be more likely to explain others' relative success with outside social factors than individual attributes in order to lessen the taste of the sour grapes.

9. It is generally said that siblings (other than identical twins) share 50 percent of their genes (the same degree of similarity as with their respective parents); however, this is only true if parents were randomly assigned to mate with each other. The reality is that there is a process called assortative mating where reproductive mates select each other based on traits that have some sort of genetic basis. This assortative mating can result in a lower than 50 percent genetic similarity among siblings if "opposites attract." More likely, however, it results in a greater than 50 percent similarity since parents are positively matched on attributes and thus are contributing some of the "same" genes to their offspring, reducing the variability and increasing the similarity between their children (and themselves). These issues will be discussed in greater detail in the sections that follow.

From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

1. Inequality Starts at Home:
An Introduction to The Pecking Order

2. Butterflies in Bialystok, Meteors in Manila:
The Nature-Nurture Red Herring

3. Love Is a Pie:
Birth Order and Number of Siblings

4. Death, Desertion, Divorce:
When Bad Things Happen to Good Families

5. Movin’ On Up, Movin’ On Out:
Mobility and Sibling Differences

6. Legacies and role Models, Fat and skin:
Gender Dynamics in the Family

7. Random Acts of Kindness (and Cruelty):
Outside Influences on Sibling Success

8. From Tribes to Markets:
Conclusions, Implications, and Insinuations

About The Pecking Order:
A Technical Appendix

Dalton Conley|Author Q&A

About Dalton Conley

Dalton Conley - The Pecking Order

Photo © Lisa Ackerman

Dalton Conley is University Professor and Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he is a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His previous books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. Conley lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

Q&A with Dalton Conley

Let's start with the title of your book: THE PECKING ORDER: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. What factors help determine this?

You name it, it matters. Let’s start with class: Parents with money, education and social connections are able to provide all of these things for all of these children, thereby minimizing the differences between them. By contrast, when a kid from a family without resources “makes it” it almost by definition means that other siblings are going to be left behind, since usually not all kids experience upward mobility. That just leads to the big question, of course, which is when there are differences between siblings in terms of who succeeds, what explains those differences. The answer is innate ability; the economic trajectory of the family; family changes such as parental death or divorce; family size and its relation to birth order; geographic mobility; peer and mentor influences; even sexual and religious orientation. To top it all off, how all these factors matter depends on each other. The family is a bubbling cauldron, not a simple sorting machine.

In the intro to your book you use the example of siblings, Bill and Roger Clinton, two vastly different siblings brought up in the same household. Most families don't have such glaring discrepancies, or do they?

In most families one kid doesn’t end up in jail ala Roger; and of course, practically nobody ends up President. But they do represent a widespread pattern in America – sibling differences in class status are often dramatic, especially when a family is coming from the bottom rungs of the ladder—as the Clinton brothers were.

You argue that the pecking order in a family is not established by parents or by the "natural abilities" of a child. If not, then what factors do create a child's identity?

There is a wide range of factors. Natural abilities and parental behavior and “investments” certainly do matter; but so does the size of the family, the timing of major changes to the family such as parental death or divorce, the overall economic status of the household and the economic trajectory; the roles that the mother and father play in the wider world (for instance, whether or not the mother works outside the home); and so on. Genes are definitely important, but how they matter depends totally on the environmental factors surrounding the kid.

So you're saying birth order doesn't matter? Is a family's size the key?

Birth order as a psychological variable—as in first borns are Type A and last borns are laid back and so on—does not matter much for who succeeds. After all, in our wide-ranging economy, there is theoretical a path for all personality types. Where birth order does matter is in its relation to family size. In families that have more than two children, the middle children often feel the squeeze from both sides and receive less parental investment in the form of time and money and thus perform less well than first or last borns. It is really a question of a fixed resource pie, though, more than the individual psychology of kids.

And what about children of divorce?

I noticed a couple patterns with respect to divorce. First, the kids who have already left the nest, so to speak, when then bomb drops endure the fewest long-term effects on their life paths. However, among those who are still at home, the eldest often suffers the most—particularly when she is female—since that child often has to take over many of the responsibilities of the missing parent. Of course, if divorce represents a “relief” from a highly conflictual or abusive situation, then everything is flipped and all bets are off.

Class identity plays an important role in determining sibling disparity--shouldn’t' that be shared by siblings? Why or why not?

Class is experienced very differently for different kids. First of all, families often experience a significant amount of upward (or sometimes downward) mobility over their history—so in a very real way the class status of the kids growing up can differ.

As the American family changes in the 21st century, (and is continually impacted by such factors as an increase in divorce, remarriages, adoption, etc.) how is class status affected?

Probably means that siblings will be experiencing their families more and more differently, which may result in sibling class disparities becoming more common. But there are so many other trends, like increasing inequality in society as a whole, that make it hard to predict exactly how it will all shake out.

What role does genetics play in our success or failure? How do twins pan out?

Twins do turn out more similar than the rest of us, on average; take the case of Dear Abby and Ann Landers, for example. But we cannot know for sure whether twins are more similar thanks to their genes or because of the fact that people treat them so similarly. Being a twin gives one a special status, so that makes it really hard to draw general conclusions about the rest of us based on their similarities or differences. And of course, there are major exceptions to the twin similarity pattern, cases where twins work so hard to forge their own, distinct identities that they end up radically different.

Isn't some of our identity simply determined by pure luck?

Definitely; luck plays more of a role than we’d like to admit—in the form of accidents, breaks, and so on. Of course, when bad things happen to a sibling, that person is likely to attribute them to bad luck, but when good things happen, s/he is more likely to say that it was of his/her own doing. But luck is not totally random, if you know what I mean. Getting raped is really bad luck that can throw a young woman’s class trajectory off-course, but it doesn’t often happen to men; getting placed in a terrible track at school is also damaging to a sibling but is more likely to happen to poor and minority families.

Tell me how you researched the book. What in your background led you to be so interested in sibling differences?

I combined the power of numbers—statistically analyzing three national surveys—with the intimacy that came from family case studies, where my research team and I interviewed multiple siblings from 75 families, for a total of 175 interviews. I always say that all professors are studying themselves in some way or another. I’m not quite sure how that works for, say, mathematicians or astronomers, but it is certainly true for sociologists. So, I guess that’s a way of admitting that the differences in values and career paths between my sister and myself have always fascinated me. It’s cheaper than therapy, after all.

From the Hardcover edition.



“Lucid and provocative. . . . It will make you think twice about how you became what you are.” —The Washington Post Book World

"Don't get too attached to tidy assumptions, such as ‘firstborns succeed’ and ‘elite colleges make the difference.’ The Pecking Order is bound to shatter them.” —Detroit Free Press

“Conley turns conventional wisdom on its head. . . . Astonishing.” —The New York Times

“A profound, controversial and blessedly easy-to-read book that ought to be required reading for armchair experts about families--their own families, and others about whom they gossip.” —The Oregonian

"Intriguing and provocative." —Howard Gardner, The Boston Globe

"[Conley] offers a revolutionary new theory -- grounded in facts and statistics -- detailing the complexities of both the familial and the societal sorting process." —Booklist

“Families can be tough. Now there’s statistical proof.” —O Magazine

“Fascinating…The Pecking Order provides a revealing and well-researched insight into modern American society.” —Tulsa World

“Authoritative yet lively... [Conley] chooses stories that get complicated, but he does not compromise the nuances of the statistical research. He keeps his prose simple…The Pecking Order brings an important but technical branch of social science to a new readership.” —Michael Hout, Contexts

“An interesting and eminently readable combination of overall trends and individual family histories.” —The Providence Journal-Bulletin

“From the first page, this book is engaging because you cannot help but think of your own family predicament.” —The Seattle Times

“A fun read with a serious intent…Conley satisfies our thirst for knowing the private lives of the rich and famous while also shedding light on the family lives of anonymous Americans.” —Stanley Aronowitz, The Nation

The Pecking Order is not a conventional parenting book, but it stands as a daunting reminder of the significant roles both parents and sibling play in determining a child’s success in the world.” —National Post (Canada)

"Reveals a much more fascinatingly shaded world than that of those who choose either nature or nurture." -Kirkus Reviews

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