Birth date- Can it give you a leg up in education, sports?


Elizabeth Hancock and Yoanna Esquivel

In the college English class, the students were tasked with reading the non-fiction book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, over the summer. 

In the novel, Gladwell claims that while most people believe that success is based upon individual merit, there are in fact many hidden, arbitrary factors that contribute to one’s success.

To prove his claim, Gladewell uses the examples of Canadian hockey, European soccer, and American baseball. He claims that the most successful hockey, baseball, or soccer players (the ones that will eventually play professionally) are often not necessarily the best athletes initially, just the oldest.

He began to believe this when he noticed that most professional hockey players were born in the first four months of the year-January, February, March or April. As a matter of fact, 40% of professional players will have been born between January and March, 30% between April and June, 20% between July and Septemeber, and only 10%  between October and December.

“The explanation for this is quite simple,” Gladwell states. “It has nothing to do with astrology, nor is there anything magical about the first three months of the year.”

Instead Gladwell claims that the cut off date for age-class hockey is January 1.

“A boy who turns ten on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year-and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity,” Gladwell writes.

According to Gladwell, this boy’s advantage is at first not so much; he isn’t inherently better, just older. However, because he is older and bigger, he appears to be more talented and coordinated because he has the benefit of critical extra months of maturity.

The older boy who appears more talented is chosen for the all-star team or the travel squad, while the younger boy is not.

“But by the age of 13 or 14, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt [gained while playing on the all-star team], he really is better, so he is more likely to make it to the big leagues [and play professionally].”

Basically, if you make a decision about who is good and who is not at an early age; if you separate the “talented” from the “untalented” and then provided the “talented” with more practice time and better coaching such as in the all-star or travel leagues, you end up giving a huge advantage to the small group of athletes born closest to the cutoff date.

Gladwell calls this the theory of “relative age” and claims that this isn’t just a phenomenon that affects sports; it can be seen in American kindergarten classrooms as well.

As the cutoff date for kindergarten is September 1, students born on September 2 through December 31 will have the advantage of being the oldest students in their class and therefore they will be more mature than students who are born late in the summer months and are the youngest in their class.

“Some teachers are confusing maturity with ability,” Gladwell said.

The students who are older appear more intelligent. They are often placed into gifted  or honors level classes because they can perform better on standardized tests. But part of the reason they are performing better on those tests is due to the fact that they are sometimes almost an entire year older and more mature then some of their younger classmates.

“[The older students] are put in the advanced stream, where they learn better skills, and the next year, because they are in the higher groups, they do better; and the next year the same thing happens, and they do even better again,” Gladwell claims.

According to Gladwell, the only country that does not ability group students at a young age is Denmark, where they delay any type of ability grouping until after the age of 10, when maturity differences by age have evened out.

Gladwell’s “relative age” theory and the way in which it affects success is certainly intriguing, but is it accurate?

We decided to test his theory that the arbitrary factor of age can affect success by looking at the students of CHS.

We looked at the ages of the top 25% of the 11th and 12th grade classes to see if “relative age” might affect academic success at CHS.

We also looked at the starters on the football team to see if “relative age” might affect athletic success.

In the junior class at CHS, 18 of the 24 students ranked in the top 25% were born near or around the cut-off date and therefore are the oldest in their class. Only six were born after January 1 and are the younger students in the class of 2021.

In the senior class, 16 of the 19 students who rank in the top 25% academically were born at or around the cutoff date.

This data concludes that most of the upperclassmen who rank at the top of their class at CHS are the oldest, with only a few exceptions. 

Another trend that Malcolm mentioned in his book is how the best players on a team tend to be the oldest, because they also have birth dates right next to the cutoff dates. We noticed a very similar pattern with the starters on the varsity football team. 

Nearly all of the sophomore starters on varsity are the oldest in their class and have a birthday within the first four months (September, October, November, or December) of the cutoff date of September 1.

65% of the junior starters are the oldest in their class and born between September 1 and December 31.

Gladwell’s theory of relative age seems to be valid when looking at the academic and athletic success of the students at CHS.

In Outliers, Gladwell also explores how other hidden, arbitrary factors such as extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies can affect success.

The book contains many other interesting tid-bits including what the Beatles and Bill Gates have in common, the reason you’ve never heard of the smartest man in the world, and why when it comes to plane crashes, where the pilot is born matters as much as how well they are trained.

“In understanding successful people, we have come to focus far too much on their intelligence, ambition, or personality traits,” Gladwell argues. “Instead, we should look at the world that surrounds the successful.”