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Family Influence on Careers

When I write about career choice, I usually encourage people to consider the potential rewards of the occupation: extrinsic rewards such as income and job opportunity, plus intrinsic rewards such as opportunities for leadership or doing interesting work. I point out that every occupation has entry requirements that the decision-maker must meet, plus demands for skills, knowledge, or perhaps tolerance for an unpleasant environment. You can probably think of other considerations that people bring to bear on the decision (or should bring to bear).

When I write about career choice, I usually encourage people to consider the potential rewards of the occupation: extrinsic rewards such as income and job opportunity, plus intrinsic rewards such as opportunities for leadership or doing interesting work. I point out that every occupation has entry requirements that the decision-maker must meet, plus demands for skills, knowledge, or perhaps tolerance for an unpleasant environment. You can probably think of other considerations that people bring to bear on the decision (or should bring to bear).

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One consideration that career decision-makers often weigh but that might be invisible to outsiders (for example, career counselors) is the expectations that are created by the career decision-maker’s family. When I was an academic advisor as part of my faculty duties at the York Campus of Penn State, one student advisee told me that the men in the previous four or five generations of his family had all been naval officers, so he started out with that as his career goal. He lasted one semester at Maine Maritime Academy before he realized that this is not what he actually wanted to do with his life. My own career decisions were shaped by my parents’ expectations that I would get a college degree and do something that would contribute to the betterment of the world (as opposed to a business career).

But it’s important to recognize that family influence does not consist solely of imparting the values that influence a young person’s occupational choice. Families also contribute human capital–that is, skills and work habits that make the young person better suited for some occupations than others. For example, I grew up in a very verbal family, so even before I entered school I already had an advantage in verbal skills that opened many doors for me throughout my subsequent education and career. It’s not easy to untangle how much of an ability comes from nature and what from nurture. But, in a discussion of human capital, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether it is genetics or environment that causes us to inherit it from our parents.

Recently I came upon a study about one indication of parental transfer of human capital. Judith K. Hellerstein and Melinda Sandler Morrill researched the tendency of daughters to go into the same career as their fathers. They found that this tendency increased greatly over the past century and considered it an indication of the transfer of human capital between the generations.

The two economists drew on data from three surveys: the General Social Survey (GSS), the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), and the Occupational Changes in a Generation (OCG). They looked at birth cohorts from 1909 to 1977 and found a steadily increasing likelihood–rising from about 6 percent to about 20 percent–that a woman would work in the same occupation as her father.

Of course, the likelihood that women would work at any occupation outside the home was increasing during this time interval, so it was necessary to show that the career choices were father-oriented in particular.

Furthermore, the researchers realized that it wasn’t enough to compare same-as-father choices to all other possible occupational choices, because for any person there is a fairly limited number of likely possible choices. As an extreme example, in 1920 it wouldn’t make much sense to compare the likelihood of a same-as-father choice to the choice of engineer because there were virtually no female engineers at that time. Even in our more liberated era, women are more likely to go into occupations that are common in their communities and in their socioeconomic group. The researchers needed to identify occupations that were realistic (not in the John Holland sense) alternatives to the father’s occupation, so that the choice of one over the other would indicate an actual decision.

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They decided to compare the frequency of choosing the father-in-law’s occupation. This occupation would be a realistic alternative for most women if it were true, as commonly believed, that women tend to marry men of a roughly similar socioeconomic and cultural background. The researchers confirmed that this assumption was true over this same time span–there was no increase in “marrying up” or “marrying down”–because there was no change in the likelihood that a woman’s husband worked in the same occupation as her own father. Therefore, it was a good idea to compare the likelihood that a woman would choose her father’s occupation rather than her father-in-law’s occupation. And, indeed, what they found was that same-as-father choices increased more rapidly than same-as-father-in-law choices. It’s interesting to note that they also found no increase in the frequency that sons would choose their father’s occupation.

The researchers assumed that the daughters, in making their career choices, were influenced overwhelmingly by considerations of comparative utility. That is, they chose the occupations for which they were best skilled, with the expectation of higher achievement or reward. This would mean that these choices reflect the transmission of human capital from father to daughter. Personally, I think economists tend to give short shrift to noneconomic factors that enter into the decision–what economists call “taste.”

I’ll conclude with a variation on a quip by Oscar Wilde, who said, “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.” I would say, only half-seriously (please, no hate mail from economists!), “An economist is a person who knows the utility of everything but the personal values of nobody.”