NEW YORK (MainStreet) — In sports, being left-handed can be quite the advantage. Especially when opponents are most familiar with the movements of right-handed opponents. In tennis, John McEnroe and Monica Seles are prime examples. Boxer Oscar de la Hoya would be another. Baseball is perhaps best represented by legendary southpaws: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr. and many others.
And yet, for the 12% of the world's population who are left-handed, few, if any other professions offer a strategic advantage to being left-handed. But economist Joshua Goodman of the Harvard Kennedy School says lefties are on-trend these days.
"If anything, left-handedness has come into vogue, with modern proponents who argue that left-handedness is overrepresented among highly talented individuals," he said. "Proponents of this view cite either anecdotal evidence, such as the fact that four of the last seven U.S. presidents have been left-handed (Gerald Ford, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama), or studies that purport to demonstrate unusual intelligence or creativity among left-handers."
In reality, Goodman's research says lefties may be at a distinct disadvantage – perhaps not in the sports arena but in the workplace – where left-handed employees earn 10% to 12% less annually than righties. Using data compiled from studies that followed teenagers through adulthood, Goodman found that the median left-handed American worker earns $1,300 a year less -- about 6% below the median righty. And it's an even larger wage gap for U.S. left-handed men, who earn $2,500 less per year than median male righties, a difference of about 9%.
It's not a physical difference, Goodman says – in fact, left-handed workers are more commonly found in manually intensive occupations than righties -- but perhaps cognitive. He believes it may be a matter related to brain structure and usage, particularly when it comes to language processing.
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"Left-handed individuals might fare poorly in the labor market not due to the manual nature of left-handedness, but as a consequence of the underlying neurological wiring that leads to it," Goodman says. These observed differences in behavior as well as cognitive and learning skills are associated with differences in education, occupation and earnings, he claims.
--Hal M. Bundrick is a Certified Financial Planner and contributor to MainStreet. Follow him on Twitter: @HalMBundrick