It’s a unique, often frustrating, sometimes exhilarating thing being the younger sibling of a ferociously responsible adult — and in a single, astonishing scene in its second season, Netflix’s The Crown manages to nail it. Princess Margaret, rebounding from a broken-off engagement, goes on an unchaperoned motorcycle ride through the streets of London with a sexy photographer; meanwhile, her older sister, Queen Elizabeth, says a short, stressed-out prayer and gets into bed, calling out a tense and chaste good night to her husband in his separate bedroom across the hall.
Every untamable younger brother and rebellious middle sister knows exactly what this scene is getting at. Ever wondered why it’s always seemed like Princess Margaret, Prince Harry, Charlie Sheen, and Solange were having a more freewheeling, enjoyable go of it than their top-billed, first-fiddle siblings? It’s the universal best-kept secret: Being No. 2 is way more fun.
For all of the accolades it receives for its depiction of the evolution of the British monarchy, The Crown is an equally strong illustration of how birth order affects adults’ personalities. Elizabeth and Margaret, for example, embody several classic traits of first- and second-born siblings. As Catherine Salmon, author of The Secret Power of Middle Children, puts it, firstborns score high in “dominance, the extroversion that makes you take charge of a group or control what’s going on in a group,” but later-born kids in a family score high in the kind of extroversion that’s “focused on sociability and interacting with other people.” Later-born kids, in other words, can be “more sociable in that sort of laid-back, ‘I want to hang out with my friends and do fun stuff’ kind of way, and be more risk-taking in general than first-born children.”
Salmon, a second-born child herself, describes her brother as “the stereotypical older brother”: high-achieving and conscientious. “I was the one who wanted a tattoo when I was 5,” she laughs. I, too, am the sole kid sister of an older brother; the same year I made a spontaneous escape from my apartment in Brooklyn to the mountains of Patagonia, my brother began building a house in Minnesota three miles from my parents’. And Princess Margaret, disillusioned with the pompous royal “fairy tale” narrative her relatives dutifully sell, and preferring instead to hang with civilians and rage on the royal-family dime, is about as perfect a picture of the second-kid mind-set as you could ask for.
Of course, in the context of a monarchy, being the second-born can also mean that you end up the No. 2 in the family line of work — which is, similarly, sometimes the most enviable position. Being the boss in any given work environment can easily mean that you’re the most stressed-out person there, Linda A. Hill and Kent Lineback write in Being the Boss: The 3 Imperatives for Becoming a Great Leader. Bosses, especially new ones, they write, “often wonder, Does anyone know I’m faking it?” — or they one day realize that their team isn’t performing as it should and develop a nagging suspicion that perhaps they’re part of the problem. And bosses end up in the uniquely undesirable position of being held responsible for the quality of other people’s work. When the department or the company — or the Commonwealth — succeeds or fails, fairly or not, it’s often seen as the boss’s success or failure.
So ranking second in command can often be the workplace sweet spot, as it comes with a comparable amount of authority, but crucially, less accountability. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, in other words, but far less heavy is the head next to it. In The Crown, it’s Princess Margaret and Prince Philip who enjoy this sort of second-banana spot, enjoying all of the same privileges of royalty as Elizabeth, but hardly ever having to make the same sorts of tough decisions that Elizabeth does. And for a more modern example, remember how nobody in the White House ever seemed to be having as good a time as Joe Biden?
Royal families in particular, though, Salmon says, represent just about the most intense collision possible between being-the-boss pressure and being-the-eldest pressure. “Families that hold power of any kind, whether it’s royal families or mafia families, where power is passed down to the oldest child historically,” she says, “it’s not even just parental expectation weighing down on them at that point. It becomes society’s expectations on them as well. Parents’, grandparents’, and the general population’s.”
And you can’t talk about wild younger siblings who’ll likely never inherit the throne of the British monarchy without mentioning the modern iteration of the royal family. “Some of the crazy things that Prince Harry got up to — the naked photos in Vegas, stuff like that,” Salmon says, “you could never have imagined his older brother getting into that situation.” Or, for that matter, appearing in official engagement portraits announcing his betrothal to a woman in a dress with a “sensual” and “risqué” sheer top.
Prince Harry, for his part, is a near-perfect example of a free-spirited No. 2 getting the better end of the deal. “Harry’s behavior was seen as inappropriate, but it was also sort of fondly viewed,” Salmon says. Since he’ll never be the king, she adds, “It’s like, well, he doesn’t have the same responsibilities. It’s okay if he wants to be a little bit more adventurous — or marry an American.”