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LETTER: Leaving footsteps that are worth following


Historically, the phenomenon of children entering their parents’ careers – following in their parents’ footsteps – was perceived as a social ill. It was a sign that the children were trapped by barriers keeping them out of other occupations and relegating them to reliving the work lives of their parents.

It was interpreted as a negative in the sense that it represented children not being able to escape the occupation that their parents had. It reflected what we might call occupational immobility.

But as it turns out, many of the fields in which footstep-following is relatively common are ones with lines of people clamoring to get in, including law, politics, medicine, and sports and entertainment. That’s hard to square with the historical view. Is a woman who follows her mother or father into medical school, say, really doing so because it’s her only alternative?

Although there is relatively little research on footstep-following by daughters, for the most part, as a result of low historical numbers of women in many professions, a new approach is yielding insight into how footstep-following may be different for women.

The evidence says that footstep-following often reflects, not feudal-like entrapment, but a desire to capitalize on opportunities. In that regard, some parents see occupation-specific human capital and reputational capital as gifts they can pass on to their children. But how far should those parents go in that direction?

For the child who does learn the pros and cons and concludes that the work is attractive, the upside may be a more satisfying career. Any occupation has a downside – financial risks, loneliness, pick your hazard. Someone who goes into an occupation with the experience of watching his or her parents experience the full range of costs and benefits seems to me much more likely to be successful and to experience happiness.

Beyond the generational differences, it’s time to move away from these false narratives. Instead, we should be asking how all generations can work together to understand themselves and each other.

Like my grandfather to my father, I too encouraged my children to seek employment outside what we had done. “Do anything else,” I said. But, here we are.

William Perry