Media Briefings

The Long Reach Of Childhood Health And Circumstance: New Evidence From The Whitehall II Study

  • Published Date: August 2011

Childhood circumstances have large effects on career success, according to the latest analysis of Whitehall II, the well-known and widely respected study that has tracked a large group of white collar British civil servants since 1985, collecting information on their health and careers.

The research by Professors Anne Case and Christina Paxson, published in the August 2011 issue of the Economic Journal, finds that individuals who come from more advantaged family backgrounds or who were in better health as children enter the civil service at higher grades, and are more likely to be promoted.

The authors also find that individuals who report deterioration in their health across years of the survey are less likely to be promoted to higher civil service grades in the future. This indicates that health in adulthood – as well as in childhood – is an important ingredient in labour market success.

A large body of research documents the fact that health and wealth are positively correlated: those who work in higher paying jobs tend to be healthier and to live longer. This correlation may be driven by a variety of factors.

On one hand, higher incomes may protect individuals from poor health, possibly through better medical care or healthier lifestyles. On the other hand, poor health could undermine individuals’ ability to move up the career ladder into higher paying jobs.

The relationship between health and wealth may also change over the life cycle, so that economic status may be an important driver of health at some ages whereas health may influence economic status at other ages.

This new study considers how health and wealth are related. The researchers document the role that childhood circumstances – measured as children’s health and the socio-economic status of their families – play in determining career success.

They also examine whether slower career advancement is followed by deterioration in health, and whether health deterioration is followed by slower career advancement.

The researchers reach three main conclusions. The first is cautionary, showing that analyses based on the Whitehall II data tend to understate the influence that childhood circumstances have on career success.

The reason is that the study is not representative of the British population. Only a select group of individuals who come from disadvantaged backgrounds obtained the qualifications needed to obtain white collar positions in the British civil service.

In contrast, individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds who were less successful are under-represented in the study. The exclusion of this less successful group has the effect of masking the full impact of adverse childhood circumstances on adult success.

The second conclusion is that even with the understatement driven by selection, it is apparent that childhood circumstances have large effects on career success. Individuals from more advantaged family backgrounds or who were in better health as children enter the civil service at higher grades. They are also more likely to be promoted.

Childhood circumstances influence career outcomes in part through their effects on educational attainment. But they continue to have effects on career outcomes even controlling for completed education.

Finally, the authors conclude that individuals who report deterioration in their health during their careers are less likely to be promoted to higher civil service grades. But there is no evidence that current civil service grade influences future health.

These results provide support for the theory that health, both in childhood and adulthood, is an important ingredient in labour market success.

ENDS

Notes for editors: ‘The Long Reach of Childhood Health and Circumstance: Evidence from the Whitehall II Study’ by Anne Case and Christina Paxson is published in the August 2011 issue of the Economic Journal.

Anne Case and Christina Paxson are at Princeton University.

For further information: contact Romesh Vaitilingam on +44-7768-661095 (email: romesh@vaitilingam.com); Anne Case via email: accase@princeton.edu; or Christina Paxson via email: cpaxson@princeton.edu