do parents influence career paths?

“ I’m Mr. Springsteen’s son,” he said. “I got this problem. My father thinks I should be a lawyer, and my mother, she wants me to be an author. But I got this guitar.” Luckily for Bruce Springsteen, he ignored his parents’ advice and so should the rest of us. Now before you think I am writing this only for teenagers consider the story of Big Joe Duskin.

Big Joe is the son of a Preacher. In his teens, Big Joe was heavily influenced by Blues music. However when he was 17 and his father was 79, he promised never to play the “Devil’s music” until his father was dead and buried.  This became an increasing problem as Big Joe’s dad lived another 26 years!  In the meantime Joe stuck to his promise and worked in the Post Office.  Even after his father had died, it took him over half a decade to rediscover his nascent blues talent. He is now a celebrated professional musician.

Parents have a disproportionate influence on our careers either through well-meaning but partial careers advice or as role models.  There is plenty of research around the place showing just how influential parents can be in influencing career thinking.  In studies of choices of tertiary training courses, about 70% of students indicate that their parents have influenced their choice of course.  Furthermore the parents’ current occupations were reliably associated with the courses their offspring had enrolled in so that students with parents working in commerce were far more likely to be enrolled in Commerce-related degrees, and children with scientist parents were more likely to be enrolled in Science.

It is questionable whether all parents are sufficiently well-informed about current work trends to offer sound advice and then there is the emotion in the relationship.  Some parents are overly protective and see their role as getting their offspring “launched on a stable career path”, while others want their kids to have what they didn’t, or sometimes what they did have. Others want their children “to do what they like”, but “it would be a waste not to use that high UAI to get into Law or Medicine”.

Parental influence is not limited to higher socio-economic groups.  For instance Ashton Trice in the USA interviewed 949 children ranging from Kindergarten to Year 6 and found that children raised in foster families were about 7 times less likely to nominate a career ambition compared to children from families where one or two parents were present.   Closer to home was a case of a student who had grown up with drug addicted parents.  This person saw his vocational ambition solely in terms of becoming a good parent and provider.  There are other well-publicised cases of success stories where people from poor families determine to get the material success denied their parents or the social justice allegedly denied their parents (think Kevin Rudd).  I have come across other cases where a client recalls as a child seeing the baillifs arriving and taking away their parents cars and furniture. You can understand why they become resolutely risk-averse adults who would never consider any form of self-employment or entrepreneurship.

At the other end of the spectrum are the children of the wealthy. More than once I have seen clients who are totally devoid of drive or ambition due to a feeling that eventually they will inherit and not have to work. Indeed in some cases, such a strategy has disastrously backfired when the promised millions vanish in tax bills, business reversals or even young gold-digging step-parents.

Then there is the on-going and ever changing parent-child relationship. This can manifest itself in many different ways. For instance the Grandparents who strive to influence their grandchildren’s vocational aspirations, or the child who becomes relied upon increasingly to care for elderly parents while also trying to maintain or build their own career.

Of course sometimes parents can provide great advice and support. For instance Friends star Matthew Perry pursued an acting career when he was a nationally ranked junior tennis player in Canada after he went to his first tournament in the United States and didn’t score a single point.   “That was when dad sat me down,” Perry recalled, “and said, ‘You’ve made a serious vocational error.'” Generally, however, you would never dream of relying solely on your parents for tax, legal or medical advice, you would seek an informed and independent opinion.