A question of character

Richard Reeves in Prospect Magazine:

Essay_reeves The three key ingredients of a good character are: a sense of personal agency or self-direction; an acceptance of personal responsibility; and effective regulation of one’s own emotions, in particular the ability to resist temptation or at least defer gratification. Progressives are realising that, thus defined, character is intimately linked to many of their social goals—and also that it is unevenly distributed. Indeed, inequality of character may now be as important as inequality of economic resources.

The specific concerns of progressives can be divided into three connected themes: the link between character attributes and life chances; the life chances “penalty” being paid by the children who do not develop a good character; and the growing demand for good character in the labour market.

Recent claims about social mobility in Britain grinding to a halt are exaggerated. But it does seem that the likelihood of a person being upwardly mobile is increasingly influenced by personal qualities such as confidence and self-control. Julia Margo, associate director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, has assembled an impressive body of evidence linking character to life chances. Her work, which draws on that by Leon Feinstein at the Institute of Education, shows that measured levels of “application”—defined as dedication and a capacity for concentration—at the age of ten have a bigger impact on earnings by the age of 30 than ability in maths. Similarly, what psychologists call an “internal locus of control”—a sense of personal agency—at the age of ten has a bigger impact than reading ability on earnings.

More here.