Family Background and Careers

Family Background and CareersFamily background and careers are robust constructs, each of which subsumes a complex network of conditions and behaviors. They are interconnected; that is, the definition of one construct in isolation is somewhat limited because it depends on the other construct for complete meaning. The workings of a career are embedded within the workings of the family, and the workings of family are embedded within careers. Definitions of the linked constructs are complex and involve complicated webs of interactions. Family background and careers are applicable to all individuals. Indeed, all persons, notwithstanding their locations within cultures or nations, experience family and career, although the particular manifestations may vary across cultures.

Some authorities believe that families differ from other social units in that new members enter only by birth, adoption, or marriage and leave only by death. Like schools, workplaces, and communities, families have differentiated roles and functions, but they are unique in the social-emotional importance ascribed to interpersonal relationships. If family members die or depart, others can perform the lost members’ roles and functions, but the relationships cannot be duplicated. The emotional intensity of the parent-child relationship has a distinctive influence on a person’s life.

The family background construct definition herein is limited in scope to the single-generation family of origin, not the intergenerational family of the familiar family tree. Family background is further limited to psychosocial conditions and behaviors within the family and will not include the cross-generational transmissions of psychobiological features through genetic inheritance. The focus is on nurture, not nature. This limiting assumption is typical in social science literature about family and careers, though not always acknowledged.

Family background has a time-extended influence on careers. The family of origin is the principal agent of socialization during childhood and, as such, exerts a pervasive and durable influence on long-term psychosocial development. This influence extends to experiences associated with the transformation from a dependent, nonworking child into an independent, working adult.

A general definition of careers was chosen from among many used in the social sciences because it has acceptance in most disciplines: A career is the evolving sequence of a person’s work experiences over time. The definition’s essential features are (a) its focus on work experiences rather than simply employment, thus including homemaking and other productive efforts; (b) limitation of experiences to those of one person; and (c) dimension of time required to encompass an “evolving sequence” of work experiences and thus necessitating historical or longitudinal conceptualizations. Careers thus defined are essentially occupational careers: literally, the work that occupies a person’s time and efforts, whether remunerated or not.

Careers, as sequences of work experiences, can be thought of as one strand in life span development that is interwoven with, among things, social experiences, cognitive experiences, and emotional experiences to form a person’s psychosocial life history. Careers are described as behavior patterns and sequences rather than single acts (e.g., choice or entry into an occupation).

Careers are most strongly connected with family background during the first decade of life, and therefore emphasis will be given to the early emergence of two broad activity patterns: habits of industry and occupational aspirations. Both activity patterns are recognized in psychology and sociology; both are multidimensional constructs; and both are believed to be shaped through social interactions within the family unit.

Habits of industry are the attitudes and behaviors that are exhibited on jobs required within a social system, whether it is the family, school, or workplace. For example, the nonworking child develops habits for organizing time and energy to complete tasks. Some theorists add that the child learns to habitually manage aggression and frustration, to put work ahead of play, to meet externally imposed standards for achievement, and to follow verbal instructions. Taken together, these behaviors form a pattern acceptable to community and employer norms. The family is instrumental in inculcating and shaping habits of industry.

Occupational aspirations refers to a broad construct that has multiple meanings in social science theory and research. Aspirations relate to several psychosocial functions:

  • Goals, intentions, or orientations
  • Manifestations of personality traits, such as interests, values, abilities
  • Cognitive interactions among values and expectancies
  • Reflections of past social experiences
  • Representations of the self, self-concept, or identity

For purposes of this discussion, occupational aspirations will subsume all these functions. The content of occupational aspirations is often analyzed along three dimensions: (1) a status hierarchy, (2) an array of fields of work, and (3) role typing (occupations peopled by gender or racial/ethnic groups). Aspirations are dynamic, and the content changes frequently over time; that is, people aspire to a certain occupation at one time and another occupation at some other time.

Occupational aspirations are first formed within family social interactions and are clearly associated with the quality of interpersonal support and perceived societal norms, both of which may emanate from the family background. Aspirations formed at an early age shape later educational and occupational attainments. Some have argued that a feature of aspirations critical to their fulfillment is that they be “realistic,” that is, “aligned” with the education planned. Families are also instrumental in fostering the values and expectancies that are central elements in independent, self-directed choices among occupational roles.

Habits of industry and occupational aspirations also represent forms of coping with social system demands peculiar to an age/stage in the life cycle, that is, following society’s timetable for growing up. These age-graded social expectations are called developmental tasks and capture the predictable, socially impinged adaptive challenges within each stage. The major career developmental tasks to be mastered in childhood are often depicted as the acquisition of habits of industry and forming an identity as a worker, commonly expressed through occupational aspirations. The family is the primary setting in which children are first introduced to the demands of career development tasks and then taught how to cope with these tasks.

The complex mechanisms for transmitting the influences of family background experiences on a person’s early career are generally grouped by two dominant family characteristics: (1) family structure, the internal organization of the family unit, and (2) family functions, the intrafamily unit relations and interactional processes required to carry out normal family responsibilities and duties. These two characteristics will be considered both separately and jointly.

Family structure characteristics linked to careers can be explained by describing three publicly observable differences among family units. The first difference occurs in family composition. Examples are the number of siblings and caretakers (i.e., family size), whether or not members are biologically related, and children’s birth order and spacing. The second difference occurs in the physical surroundings. Examples include domicile space considerations, such as shared bedrooms, noise level, and the family-related circumstance of geographic location. Third are material differences among families, including conditions such as family wealth, prestige of caretakers’ education and occupations, and number and type of media in the home. In summary, family structure characteristics set the parameters for children and youth to broaden and deepen experiences essential to careers.

Some would argue that the examples of material differences are simply indicators of the venerable sociological construct socioeconomic status (SES). The influence of family-of-origin SES on the offspring’s entering high-status occupations, especially when educational achievement is controlled, has been demonstrated in several large-scale longitudinal research studies. In brief, more material and social resources enable families to provide opportunities for education, skill development, and social “contacts” that influence hiring. Conversely, less material and social resources can result in biases and barriers that reduce these opportunities.

Family functions are fulfilled through family interactions, and are the overt and covert communication processes both within dyads of family members and within the family unit as a whole. For example, family members communicate work habits and attitudes to a child, which, in turn, the child generalizes to school and job settings. Consequently, these communications are sometimes called the initial social learning mechanisms for socialization into work roles.

These communications are further clarified by differentiating three family interactions in which they commonly occur: (1) activities that are taught, encouraged, or disciplined; (2) interpersonal relations among family members; and (3) social roles as taught directly and conveyed through models. These three opportunities for children’s socialization experiences have obvious parallels with three adult experiences in occupational careers: work tasks and duties, worker relationships with bosses, coworkers and customers, and differentiated roles within work organizations.

Family activities, such as intrafamily games and household chores, allow children to learn about family social norms such as competition and cooperation, rewards and penalties, and the general “rules of the game”: attitudes that serve as important foundations for a socialized worker. As children grow up, they engage in more complex activities that teach advanced lessons about worker roles and attitudes as preparation for the habits of industry.

The family also directs activities at the person, such as parental child-rearing practices that train children both overtly and covertly in work habits and values. Some research evidence supports the proposition that parent child-rearing orientation and behaviors, for example, the kind of activities parents reward, influence children’s developing interests and values and thus indirectly influence their occupational aspirations and the directions their careers take later in life.

Familial interpersonal relations are the fundamental qualities of the parent-child dyad, parent-parent relationships, and sibling relationships. Family conversations are important to the child’s developing ideas and attitudes about careers. Some theorists argue that security and safety in relations with others as first experienced in the family are essential for coping with later developmental tasks. The content of these communications has been classified as either supportive (i.e., affective enabling) or challenging (i.e., cognitive enabling). Parental support and encouragement are manifested through showing appreciation, respect, and special attention. Such communication, sometimes portrayed as parental affirmation, strengthens the contentedness or emotional bond between parent and offspring. Support may also convey positive attitudes about the child’s aspirations. High familial support has been shown to be critical for young women and lower-SES offspring who are forming and realizing nonnormative occupational aspirations. Conversely, low support and low challenge may impede the learning of habits of industry and occupational aspirations.

Parental challenges directed toward the child usually occur in purposeful, self conscious, and goal-directed activities and take the form of stimulation, discipline, or training. Challenge is communicated through competitive games and expectations of achievement, effort, and efficiency.

There has been considerable debate about the place of separation and individuation of offspring from parents in relation to careers. Separation is a part of the child’s self-reflective processes, particularly how the child sees himself or herself as separate and distinct in the parent-child relationship. Some believe that adequate separation from parents is a necessary condition for adult independence and self-direction, which are the hallmarks of careers in Western societies. Some believe that separation is valued only in particular cultures and that it can be the source of tension in families and in offspring growing up in dual cultures. Parental attachment, or close contact with parents, also seems to be associated with enhanced development. Although the evidence is mixed and largely retrospective and correlational, thus making the direction of causation unclear, there is a tendency for both separation/individuation and contentedness/attachment to be associated with mastery of adolescent and adult career-development tasks.

Sibling relationships are likely to be instrumental in careers, although there is little research or theory about these relationships. Commonly accepted examples are that older siblings may provide younger siblings with challenges and support much as parents do, and younger siblings may offer opportunities for older siblings to practice nurturing skills.

Social roles and role expectations are communicated through family power relationships, family “rules,” and family traditions. Roles are learned within the family setting directly through instruction and vicariously through work role and sex role models. Some authorities suggest that parents’/caregivers’ workplace conditions have an indirect influence on their children’s career development. Their argument is that the conditions of parents’ jobs (e.g., degree of self-direction) shape parents’ personalities and values (e.g., value of independence), which, in turn, influence parenting behaviors (e.g., arranging and rewarding independence). Whether or not the female caregiver works outside the home has been shown to influence daughters’ aspirations and subsequent career directions.

Although often studied in isolation, family structure characteristics and family functions interact in everyday life to produce the essence of family background experiences that are linked with career experiences. For example, family material wealth distributed according to family size (two structural qualities) may set constraints on the transmission of occupational aspirations and habits of industry that takes place through family functions such as child-rearing practices and role models.

Empirically validated relationships between and among family background variables and career variables are extremely complex owing to several conditions. First, many family-career links are indirect; that is, family influences on career are mediated by a third set of factors. For example, the influence of family structure on an individual’s career is not direct, but rather is enhanced or limited by the amount of education the individual attains. Second, the purported causation is not always unidirectional; that is, the child influences the family, and the family influences the child. For example, the influence of parents’ activity interests on children’s interests may be reciprocated by adaptation of parental activities to accommodate the child’s interests. Third, the sheer number of variables involved makes data gathering and analyses complicated. When the necessity of longitudinal designs is added to study “experiences over time,” research on family background and careers becomes an expensive and formidable venture.

Two specific examples of frequently studied family occupational socialization mechanisms that influence careers are called occupational inheritance and occupational linkage. Occupational inheritance is the general notion that a parent’s occupation “begets” the child’s occupations. Social scientists refer to occupational inheritance as the social induction mechanism by which offspring are prepared to enter the particular occupation of the parent. Families are believed to be instrumental in shaping the direction of the child’s occupational aspirations. For example, professional entertainers provide their offspring with performance models, training, and “personal contacts” that prepare the child for work in the entertainment field. Evidence suggests that relatively few children enter the specific occupation of either parent; for example, in general, entertainers’ children seldom become entertainers, though children tend toward broad fields of work similar to their parents’; for example, entertainers’ children are more likely than other children to enter occupations in the arts.

Occupational linkage is a social induction mecha­nism for explaining the perpetuation of the occupa­tional value structure across generations. Parental work values, such as valuing achievement or material wealth, are transferred to children through social learning experiences and, as a consequence, influence children’s choices of occupations. The evidence is mixed; some studies have revealed a tendency for children to reflect their parents’ occupational values and to apply these values in selecting occupations, but evidence from other studies is equivocal.

In summary, family background is linked with careers in powerful ways that are not completely explicated by theories or by research evidence. Families and careers each demonstrate wide-ranging interconnected qualities that, in turn, are linked with the other construct in a tangled, complicated fashion, analogous to the convergence of two nets. What seems irrefutable is that each touches the other to shape human and societal development.

See also:


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