Over at Everyday Sociology, Karen Sternheimer discussed one of Malcolm Gladwell’s arguments in his book, Outliers.  She explains:

While the American ethos of success suggests that it is the result of talent and hard work, Gladwell examines factors that sociologists refer to as social structure—things beyond our individual control—to understand what else successful people have helping them on their journey. Let’s be clear: skills and hard work are important, but so is timing.

One of the examples Gladwell uses is the strange concentration of wildly improbable success in birth cohorts (people born around the same time).  Sternheimer summarizes Gladwell’s argument as to how timing and geography shaped the ascendence of Gates and Jobs:

Gladwell describes how being born in the mid 1950s was particularly fortuitous for those interested [and talented] in computer programming development (think Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, both born in 1955). It also helped to be geographically near what were then called supercomputers, the gigantic predecessors to the thing on which you’re reading this post.

Sternheimer goes on to argue that members of Generation X may have a special advantage over earlier and later cohorts.  This figure shows that the number and rate of births peaked between the 1950s and then dropped precipitously during the period in which Generation X was born:


Those of us born in Generation X, then, would have had the advantage of schools designed and staffed for many more kids, leading to small class sizes and more resources for each kid.  Sternheimer writes:

As Gladwell describes, children born after booms… have the benefit of smaller class sizes. An unprecedented number of schools were built for Baby Boomers in the years before I was born. When my cohort was ready to go to school, there were newly-built buildings waiting for us, especially for people like me who lived in well-funded suburbs…

When I was in elementary school in the mid 1970s, there were so few students that many classes were combined: first and second graders had the same teacher, as did third and fourth graders. Looking back, this provided me with some unusual opportunities.

Being able to think through this intersection of biography and history is how C. Wright Mills describes as “the sociological imagination.”


Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.