Turns out “generational wealth” might refer to more than just your parents’ money.
The children of conventionally attractive parents have higher earnings than those from more average-looking families, according to a new working paper distributed by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Just how much does it pay to be the offspring of a good-looking couple? For every standard deviation above average-looking that their parents rank, a child’s annual earnings increase $2,300, the researchers found.
“The crucial thing to stress is that this kind of genetic link is there, and the size of it is a couple thousand dollars a year,” said Daniel Hamermesh, an economist at the University of Texas at Austin and co-author of the paper, titled “The Economic Impact of Heritable Physical Traits: Hot Parents, Rich Kid?”
The paper pulls from prior datasets tracking the attractiveness of parents and their children, as well as the children’s earnings, in the U.S. and China and among billionaires worldwide. The parents’ and children’s attractiveness was rated by other people, rather than determined by mathematical measurements like the symmetry of their face.
By drawing connections between those existing data points, Hamermesh told MarketWatch, the new research essentially shows that good looks — just like real estate or a nest egg — can be their own kind of inherited asset, boosting income across generations.
That’s because better-looking people are more likely to be financially and professionally successful throughout their lives.
“It’s twofold,” Hamermesh said. “Your parents being good-looking makes you look good-looking, and that helps you do well. But it’s also because if your parents were good-looking, that means they [likely] have more money to give you.”
“Of course, looking good can be much more attainable if you’re able to afford dental work, dermatology treatments and makeup.”
Hamermesh has studied the link between good looks and success for more than a decade.
Attractive individuals are also more likely to be employed, receive more substantial pay and negotiate better loan terms than their less-attractive counterparts, according to his book, “Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People are More Successful.”
And our looks often play a larger role in our odds of success than we realize, he said.
“It’s everything. From our earnings, to our promotion rate … to how well we do in school,” he said. “Throughout the life cycle, this matters.”
Suddenly feeling a little self-conscious? That’s understandable — Hamermesh himself acknowledged that the findings are “very depressing.”
“It’s exactly the same as any other kind of discrimination. I don’t think it’s as important, in essence [as other forms of discrimination based on race or gender],” he said. “But qualitatively, it’s the same.”
Of course, looking good can be much more attainable if you’re able to afford dental work, dermatology treatments and makeup. Higher incomes can also make physical fitness and overall health, which are often considered markers of beauty, easier to achieve.
Meanwhile, many argue that Western beauty standards have a racial bias. “That association between beauty and whiteness has proved hard to shake,” Leah Donnella, an editor on NPR’s Code Switch team, wrote in 2019. “There’s a reason that so many people still think of an ‘all-American beauty’ as a thin, blonde, blue-eyed white woman.”
“The body-positivity movement and the fat-acceptance movements have also consistently pushed back on the idea that thin, young, white, able-bodied women are the epitome of beauty — or that beauty should be a precondition for respect to begin with,” Donnella added.
Because beauty is still technically in the eye of the beholder, you’re not likely to see legal protections based on attractiveness anytime soon. But activists have recently called for expanding the kinds of individual attributes covered by anti-discrimination laws.
For example, New York City last year outlawed discrimination based on weight or height in housing, employment and public accommodations. Colorado lawmakers are also expected to pass legislation this year that would prevent employers and landlords from discriminating against people based on their weight, and a handful of other states are considering similar laws.
In the meantime, being aware of our bias toward better-looking people is the first step to correcting it, Hamermesh said.
“If you’re conscious of the fact that you’re discriminating, you’re much less likely to do so,” he said. “I think just making people aware of something like this reduces its detrimental impact.”