What a difference a mum makes

What a difference a mum makes 2017-08-17T16:18:52+00:00

Most people know all the reasons why they need to be grateful to their mothers, for all that was learned, loved and nurtured throughout the years. However, research shows we should in fact also be grateful to all our ‘mothers’ – including our mothers-in-law – for what they pass on to us. Not least some protection against the challenges of the modern-day labour market for young women and men.

Thanks Mum!

Our parents are one of the key influences on our values, our attitudes and our life chances. For good, and sometimes bad, they shape how we approach most aspects of our lives, from leisure to education to work, and also to our own couple relations. Research shows that children tend to adopt similar attitudes to trust and risk as those held by their parents (Dohmen et al. 2012). Mothers tend to have a greater influence, particularly as regards trust. Indeed, these attitudes pervade the way we subsequently approach all spheres of life, including health, finance and work.

Like mother like daughter, like father like son

It is no surprise that we follow in the footsteps of our parents. A study by a team at Stanford University entitled ‘It’s a Decent Bet That Our Children Will Be Professors Too’ shows how social classes and socio-economic status are transmitted from one generation to the next to the extent that offspring are quite likely to emulate the specific occupations of their parents (Jonsson et al. 2011). While it’s widely accepted that kids inherit their parents’ general, all-purpose social capital, networks and resources, the Stanford team found that these advantages can be occupation-specific too. So, your lawyer Mum might instil you with a professional comportment and self-confidence, and offer you connections to her various professional-class friends. On top of that, the fact that you are more likely to talk about law at the dinner table might mean you thereby learn how to think and speak specifically like a lawyer.

Dads have a role too. A 2011 Canadian study (Corak and Piraino 2011), for instance, found that approximately two in five young men were at some point employed by an employer who also employed their father, and that almost 10% stuck with that employer long term. Two broad theories emerge to explain this tendency of young adults to work where their parents work. The first is nepotism – where parents or their friends have some power, they may use it to give preference to their kids. A second theory suggests, however, that early socialisation by parents might also indicate the young person’s superior suitability for the job, given all they have learned about the role from their parents. Exploitation of the early training that seemingly arises naturally within families might be a particularly efficient and productive use of resources, and therefore beneficial for the economy as a whole. However, such processes may reinforce inequalities for those who do not have parents in well-paid occupations or prestigious networks.

Mothers’ transmission of attitudes to their daughters

Much of the focus on intergenerational transmission of occupations focuses on fathers and sons, primarily because there are more data for men’s jobs than for women’s, and also because of the perceived greater complexity of women’s occupational choices. Expectations that men will work full time are consistent over time and across countries in spite of the advancement of women in the workplace and calls for men to take on a greater role in the home. By contrast, women’s opportunities for work outside the home vary and continue to be shaped by caring responsibilities. Nevertheless, the transmission of attitudes from mothers to daughters demonstrates the important impact of such attitudes on labour market participation.

These impacts span generations and can be seen as an ‘inheritance’ of daughters from their mothers for their labour market participation. Even more interesting, perhaps, is that there is not only an increased likelihood that a mother’s daughter will work, but also that her daughter-in-law will work. Men might choose women who are similar to their mothers, and witnessing the benefits of a working mother in their childhoods might motivate them to replicate that arrangement in their own families. There is some evidence that mothers may also inculcate their sons with the skills and values necessary to create more egalitarian households (Campos-Vazquez and Velez-Grajales 2014).

Working mothers as insurance against the economic crisis

Recent research on the impacts of the economic crisis shows that the effects of a working mother and father reduce the risk of their children being without work, and that these effects hold across countries and time. The insuring effect of working fathers against worklessness among their children declined over the crisis, but this was not the case for mothers. Comparing the situation across European countries, one of the studies found that having had a working mother increased the probability of being employed and reduced that of being inactive (Berloffa et al. 2015; Berloffa et al. forthcoming). This is especially important because being inactive – not working and not looking for work – is a particularly risky status for young people. Having two working parents is associated with higher employment rates, or reduced worklessness, for both sons and daughters.

Benefits of equality across the generations

The influence of parental occupational and labour market behaviour underlines the benefits and risks of the intergenerational transfer of values and norms. For those who grew up in households with working mothers and fathers, labour market outcomes were generally better in terms of avoidance of worklessness during the crisis and gaining access to good networks. This can be viewed as another positive outcome of gender equality, for fostering mothers’ employment during children’s adolescence can have a positive effect on children’s likelihood of youth employment success. However, the flip side is that those coming from workless households face greater risks of being without work and poor labour market outcomes (Berloffa et al. 2015). The lesson for families and policy-makers alike is that facilitating work for both parents, and particularly mothers, has both short- and long-term benefits for households and wider society.


Berloffa, Gabriella, Marianna Filandri, Eleonora Matteazzi, Tiziana Nazio, Nicola Negri, Jacqueline O’Reilly, Paola Villa and Carolina Zuccotti. 2015. Work-Poor and Work-Rich Families: Influence on Youth Labour Market Outcomes. STYLE Working Paper WP8.1 Work-poor and work-rich families

Campos-Vazquez, Raymundo Miguel, and Roberto Velez-Grajales. 2014. ‘Female Labour Supply and Intergenerational Preference Formation: Evidence for Mexico’. Oxford Development Studies 42 (4): 553-569

Corak, Miles, and Patrizio Piraino. 2011. ‘The Intergenerational Transmission of Employers’. Journal of Labor Economics 29 (1): 37-68.

Dohmen, Thomas, Armin Falk, David Huffman and Uwe Sunde. 2012. ‘The Intergenerational Transmission of Risk and Trust Attitudes’. Review of Economic Studies 79: 645–677.

Jonsson, Jan O., David B. Grusky, Matthew Di Carlo and Reinhard Pollak. 2011. ‘It’s a Decent Bet That Our Children Will Be Professors Too’. In The Inequality Reader. Contemporary and Foundational Readings in Race, Class, and Gender, edited by David B. Grusky and Szonja Szelényi, 499-516. Boulder, Co: Westview Press.