Roughly one in 1,209 baby boomers born in California reached Wikipedia. Only one in 4,496 baby boomers born in West Virginia did. Roughly one in 748 baby boomers born in Suffolk County, Mass., which contains Boston, made it to Wikipedia. In some counties, the success rate was 20 times lower.
First, and this surprised me, many of these counties consisted largely of a sizable college town. Just about every time I saw a county that I had not heard of near the top of the list, like Washtenaw, Mich., I found out that it was dominated by a classic college town, in this case Ann Arbor, Mich. The counties graced by Madison, Wis.; Athens, Ga.; Columbia, Mo.; Berkeley, Calif.; Chapel Hill, N.C.; Gainesville, Fla.; Lexington, Ky.; and Ithaca, N.Y., are all in the top 3 percent.
Sci-fi writer Neal Stephenson often mentions the important role of college towns in producing high achieving people like himself. He's a classic WASP College Town-American.
Why is this? Some of it is probably the gene pool: Sons and daughters of professors and graduate students tend to be smart. And, indeed, having more college graduates in an area is a strong predictor of the success of the people born there.
But there is most likely something more going on: early exposure to innovation. One of the fields where college towns are most successful in producing top dogs is music. A kid in a college town will be exposed to unique concerts, unusual radio stations and even record stores.
When I was in Houston to attend Rice U. in the late 1970s, it was universally acknowledged that Austin, an oversized college town, was much better for popular music than Houston. Heck, I was rock guru at Rice just because I'd go home to L.A., listen to KROQ, then come back and tell people that The Pretenders were going to be big.
Among Baby Boomers, musical talent wasn't that crucial to becoming a rock star -- being in the right place at the right time was important. (I suspect rock bands today tend to be more skilled than in my day -- they have to work harder to make it big because music is less driven by the search for the Next Big Thing.)
College towns also incubate more than their expected share of notable businesspeople.
Tom Wolfe's 1983 profile of Robert Noyce, "the mayor of Silicon Valley," emphasized that he was the son of the Congregationalist chaplin of Grinnell College in Iowa. Wolfe saw in Silicon Valley a sort of Midwestern college town low church Protestant work ethic in contrast to the high church Ivy League Episcopalianism of New York City.
Being born in San Francisco County, New York City or Los Angeles County all offered among the highest probabilities of making it to Wikipedia. (I grouped New York City’s five counties together because many Wikipedia entries did not specify a borough of birth.)
Urban areas tend to be well supplied with models of success. To see the value of being near successful practitioners of a craft when young, compare New York City, Boston and Los Angeles. Among the three, New York City produces notable journalists at the highest rate; Boston produces notable scientists at the highest rate; and Los Angeles produces notable actors at the highest rate. Remember, we are talking about people who were born there, not people who moved there. And this holds true even after subtracting people with notable parents in that field. ...
Suburban counties, unless they contained major college towns, performed far worse than their city counterparts. My parents, like many boomers, moved away from crowded sidewalks to tree-shaded streets — in this case from Manhattan to Bergen County, N.J. — to raise their three children. This was potentially a mistake, at least from the perspective of having notable children. A kid born in New York City is 80 percent more likely to make it to Wikipedia than a kid born in Bergen County. These are just correlations. But they do suggest that growing up near ideas is better than growing up near backyards.
The stark effects identified here might be even stronger if I had better data on places lived throughout childhood, since many people grow up in different counties than the one they were born in.
I suspect his anti-suburban finding is just about 180 degrees backward.
I suspect this is something an artifact of the researcher focusing upon county of birth during the years 1946-1964. I wouldn't be surprised if lots of Baby Boomers with Wikipedia pages were born in New York City, but then graduated from Bergen County high schools as part of white flight. The population of Bergen County more than doubled from 1940 to 1970, much of that growth coming from upwardly mobile Jews fleeing the five boroughs.
For example, the Zuckerberg family is a near perfect model of four generations of upward mobility, from peddler to postman to dentist to Facebook. The billionaire's father, a highly successful dentist, was born in Brooklyn. The tech entrepreneur was himself born in suburban Westchester County, but that hasn't seem to hurt his career.
Moreover, outside of New York, many counties that are home to big cities include areas that were highly suburban during the Baby Boom. For example, Cook County, IL, which was the most populous county in the U.S. until overtaken Los Angeles County midway during the Baby Boom, includes high-achieving North Shore suburbs such as Wilmette and Northwest suburbs like Northbrook and Barrington. New Trier High School in Winnetka has long been a famous suburban source of movie stars, such as Ralph Bellamy, Charlton Heston, Rock Hudson, Ann-Margaret, and Bruce Dern. But it is in Cook County, so it shows up as urban in this study.
What are now considered Chicago's suburban counties such as DuPage, Kane, and McHenry Counties were, during the Baby Boom, more populated by rural and small town dwellers.
there was another variable that was a strong predictor of Wikipedia entrants per birth: the proportion of immigrants. The greater the percentage of foreign-born residents in an area, the higher the proportion of people born there achieving something notable. If two places have similar urban and college populations, the one with more immigrants will produce more notable Americans. What explains this?
Immigrants go where the money is: e.g., California rather than West Virginia. Los Angeles County has lots of celebrities and lots of immigrant servants who clean up after the celebrities, but over the generations there has been remarkably little overlap between the offspring of the two groups. The number of children of Mexicans in the L.A. entertainment industry, for example, is remarkably low. The last time I checked, the last person of Mexican descent raised in the U.S. to be nominated for an Oscar was in the 1980s. There's such a shortage that I've seen the press try to pass off as kind of Mexican the Weitz Brothers (sons of fashion designer, race car driver, and historian John Weitz).
The notion that immigrants are attracted to where the money is seems to be hard for analysts to grasp. West Virginia increasingly tends to be populated by leftover people who don't have the drive to leave tapped out coal mining towns. West Virginia isn't poor because it doesn't have many immigrants, it doesn't have many immigrants because it's poor.
Similarly, before immigration, California used to have some rich people and a very large middle class. Now it has a lot of extremely rich people, a lot of quite poor people, and a shrunken middle class.
A LOT of it seems to be directly attributable to the children of immigrants. I did an exhaustive search of the biographies of the 100 most famous white baby boomers, according to M.I.T.’s Pantheon project. Most of these were entertainers. At least 13 had foreign-born mothers, including Oliver Stone, Sandra Bullock and Julianne Moore. This rate is more than three times higher than the national average during this period.
Stone, Bullock, and Moore are all offspring of American Army guys. Stone's mother was a French war bride, Moore's father was a colonel who married a girl from Scotland, and Bullock's dad was an opera-loving soldier (or civilian employee of the Army?) from Alabama who married a German singer. That seems pretty idiosyncratic.