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The IMPACT of Reading on Career Prospects

Reading books is the only out-of-school activity for 16-year-olds linked to better career prospects, discovered sociologist Mark Taylor. Taylor analysed 17,200 questionnaire responses from people born in 1970 who gave details of their extra-curricular activities at the age of 16 and their careers at the age of 33 and found that the 16-year-olds who read books at least once a month were significantly more likely to be in a managerial or professional job at 33 than those who did not read books at all. Mark Taylor explains.


ociologists have been thinking about reading for pleasure for years and years. We’re interested in the extent to which parents reading to their kids contributes to the children’s development: not only what it means for their vocabulary

and their confidence in speaking, but also their social development. We’re interested in kids who are capable readers, who read voraciously when they’re younger but often stop by the time they become teenagers - and why this disproportionately affects boys. We’re interested in whether it makes more sense to think about reading for pleasure in terms of how much time people spend reading, or how many books they have in their household, or how often they go to the library, or how much they talk to their friends about what they’ve been reading, or something else. And we’re interested in what we actually think of as reading for pleasure: novels, sure, but poetry? Drama? Newspapers? Magazines? Whatever they can pick up online? And so on.

The impact of reading for pleasure My research, which is firmly in this tradition, didn’t fall out of the sky

- I couldn’t have investigated reading for pleasure without this sort of background. But most of the research I’ve alluded to followed the normal pattern of academia: people spent time working on different projects, presented it at academic conferences, published it in academic journals, hopefully as many people as possible would take it in and take action based on it. When I presented my research, which forms part of my PhD thesis, at the British Sociological Association’s conference in London in April, I had a couple of journalists ring me up, which turned into coverage in five national papers, a slot on the Today Programme and the World Service, and eventually various international newspapers and agencies, reporting, variously, that if you don’t read books when you’re a teenager, you might as well give up on ever getting a job.

So what am I claiming? In brief, I’m saying that not only is reading for pleasure associated with a significantly improved probability of going to university, it’s also associated with a higher probability of entering a professional or managerial job.

Firstly, I should explain how I’ve done this. In Britain, we’re very lucky to have a few excellent cohort studies. What this means is that, for a given week, every parent giving birth in a British hospital is asked if they’d be happy for their child to be part of a study. We find out a number of things about them - birth weight, where they live, some facts and figures about their parents. We then come back and find out some things about the kids, their families, and their schools,

6 Books for Keeps No.189 July 2011

when they’re 5, 11, and 16, but we keep following them into adulthood: we learn about their medical history, whether they’ve got married, what kind of job they’re doing, whether they’ve got kids, and so on.

Significant results?

Using a cohort born in 1970, I’ve investigated whether reading at 16 is associated with more education at 23, and a managerial or professional job at 33. It turns out, in both cases, it is. For readers with an otherwise average profile, the probability of attending university rises from 23% to 32% for men and from 19% to 28% for women, and the probability of getting a professional or managerial job rises from 48% to 58% for men and from 26% to 39% for women.

How significant are these results? We can compare them to other things we think are important, such as their parents’ class position. In the previous example, the kids’ parents did what we call routine non-manual jobs - so they might have been shop assistants, administrators, and so on. We can compare them to kids whose parents were professional or managerial – a doctor or a CEO – and we find that the probability of a non-reader going to university rises from 0.24 to 0.40 for men, and from 0.19 to 0.38 for women.

I’m not just comparing groups of readers with non-readers, though. It’s no surprise that readers are more likely to have rich parents than non-readers, nor is it a surprise that rich parents end up having rich kids. So we control for a variety of things that we think are relevant: parents’ jobs, reading ability (measured by the people running the study, not by teachers), school type, and sex. For job type, we also control for education.

Taking the long view

What’s interesting about this research? At the start of this article is a list of things that sociologists have investigated with reference to reading for pleasure: this sort of research isn’t brand new. What I’ve been able to do, though, is look at a longer view. Normally, you can only look at people’s reading habits and other aspects of their lives at about the same time, or with only a few years between measurement; here, you’re able to see what the effects of reading for pleasure are much further down the line. However, we’re also very lucky in terms of being able to compare reading for pleasure with other activities. We’ve also got information on some of the other things that these kids are doing for fun when they were 16, and how they affect these same outcomes. We’re interested in this because we often hear that reading for pleasure is special: that the effects of reading for pleasure are substantively different from the effects of other teenage leisure activities.

I broke down the other teenage activities in two different ways. The first was to think about activities in terms of genre: this involved breaking things down into sports, computers and gaming, craft, reading, high culture, and media at home (watching TV, listening to records, and so on). Doing this demonstrated some interesting results: we found that participating in lots of high culture, rather than just a bit, made the biggest difference in educational attainment, but didn’t make any difference in what kind of job people ended up in. Playing sport was a similar story, although the effect wasn’t as big.

When we broke things down differently, we compared directed and undirected activity. A directed activity is something you have to make an effort to participate in: this might be going to a dance class, or going to the theatre, or going to a craft group after school. By contrast, an undirected activity you can think of as killing time: hanging out on the street came up particularly frequently. The results from this were similar: doing highbrow directed activity was associated with more education, doing more undirected activity was associated with less (but only for women), but only reading had effects that persisted beyond educational attainment.

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