The hidden factor influencing your students' career choices

When students choose their career paths, they may be following their fathers'—or their mothers'—footsteps, Quoctrung Bui and Claire Miller report for the New York Times.

Although previous research has only analyzed fathers' influence on their children's career paths, new research suggests that mothers are similarly powerful, says Kim Weeden, the chair of Cornell University's sociology department. According to a New York Times analysis of General Social Survey data, here's how men and women are influenced by their parents' career choices:

  • A man is 2.7 times as likely as the rest of the population to have the same job as his father and 2 times as likely to have the same job as his mother; and
  • A woman is 1.7 times as likely as to have the same job as her father and 1.8 times as likely to have the same job as her mother.

The occupations most likely to be passed down include steelworker and lawyer, while the jobs least likely to be inherited include clerical and middle manager positions, Bui and Miller write.

Social scientists point to a few different ways a parent's career choices may influence their children. The "breakfast-table effect," for example, may expose children to the ins and outs of a particular career and inspire their own interests, Bui and Miller write.

Similarly, how parents spend their time may signal to their children what activities, like art or academics, are worthwhile, the authors add. Students may also be influenced by their parents' attitude towards their job, they note.

Related: Revisiting the career outcomes conversation

Occupational inheritance comes with advantages and disadvantages, says Weeden. Children who follow their parents' footsteps often have a head start because they benefit from their parent's professional network or land an internship at their parent's company, she adds.

Children whose parents are unemployed, however, are more likely to be unsure about their career path, according to Weeden's research. Less affluent students likely lack the social capital that exposes their more affluent peers to different career choices and opportunities, says Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University.

First-generation students often have relatively few adults in their lives who can help them prepare for college or for the kind of job search they'll face after graduation.

In the push to prepare students for the job market, some colleges are finding ways to help low-income and first-generation students build a familial support network. LaGuardia Community College's Pushy Moms program, for example, pairs students with local mothers who have experience guiding their own children through college (Bui/Miller, New York Times, 12/5).

Also see: How to help low-income students prepare for the job market


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