Americans who are conscientious earn more money and save more of it for retirement, according to research from the University of Michigan Retirement Research Center. Workers who are at the 85th percentile of conscientiousness earn about $1,500 more per year than the average American. This amounts to about $96,000 more in lifetime earnings and $158,000 more in lifetime savings.
“Conscientiousness was the best personality predictor of lifetime earnings, how much you make per year, and how long you stay in the labor market overall,” says Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist and coauthor of the paper. The research, coauthored by University of Michigan economist David Weir, examined personality survey data linked to Social Security earnings records for 10,731 adults age 50 and over. The study controlled for a variety of other factors that could also have contributed to higher earnings including cognitive abilities and educational attainment.
Examples of conscientiousness include being punctual, dependable, and reliable. Conscientious people tend to meet deadlines and pay their taxes and bills on time. “Typically, conscientious individuals are very orderly, they like to plan ahead, they tend to have neat desks and be organized,” says Duckworth. “Conscientious people are very hard working and self-disciplined. These are the people who go running, who tend to stick to healthy diets, who tend not to procrastinate.” Previous research has found that an individual’s conscientiousness can also be a predictor of health outcomes, academic achievement, life expectancy, and be negatively correlated with divorce.
The researchers say that conscientious people have the ability to overcome the tendency to put off the start of a savings plan and avoid over-reaction to short-term stock market swings, which may be important to long-term success at retirement saving. The study found that a one standard deviation increase in conscientiousness is associated with a 9 percent increase in lifetime earnings. Conscientious employees also worked about a third of a year longer than less conscientious employees before retiring.
Emotional stability was also correlated with higher lifetime earnings. Greater emotional stability raises earnings by about $700 annually, Duckworth and Weir found, but these individuals didn’t necessarily save more for retirement.
The researchers speculate that you may be able to increase your conscientiousness and, consequently, your earnings and retirement savings. “There is some hope that conscientiousness can be changed, can be deliberately cultivated, particularly in children, I would say, but arguably across the entire life course,” says Duckworth. “Conscientious people are conscientious because they believe that they can actually have an effect on their life outcomes.”