Are You a Workaholic? Blame Your Parents

A new study from the University of Michigan finds that how we feel about work depends on how our parents feel about work.
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Reuters

People tend to have one of three beliefs about the meaning of work and which category you fall into largely depends on your parents, according to new research from the University of Michigan.

Workers who are job-oriented are those just trying to make a living who much prefer the activities they pursue outside of the office. Career-oriented adults—your typical “workaholic”—value the social status and prestige that comes with professional achievement, and derive much of their identity from their jobs. Calling-oriented people do work that they are passionate about because they want to have a positive impact on the world.

In the first empirical study into how these orientations originate, researchers found that how adolescents perceive their parents’ work ethic is central to the development of their own work attitudes.

It’s not a straightforward transfer of values. People who perceive their father to have a strong career-orientation are more likely to be career-oriented themselves—but career-determined mothers have no effect on their kids’ work orientation. The researchers attributed this to generational gender norms. When the study’s participants were teenagers, mostly in the 1980s, men were more commonly employed outside of the home and were more likely than women to hold “career” jobs with opportunity for advancement.

Mothers do have a notable effect on whether children have a job-orientation mentality. Adolescents who are close to their mothers are less likely to view work as just a job when they grow up, probably because they’ve been raised to value social, rather than instrumental, life experiences.

Having both parents display the same work ethic has an amplified influence, but only in the case of calling-oriented offspring. As our capitalist society favors money and professional achievement, a child with two calling-oriented parents is more likely to have the confidence to ignore these societal pressures and pursue her dreams.

Children can affect their parents’ work ethic, too. Allowing people to bring their children into the office has been shown to boost efficiency and productivity—and could help raise that next generation of career-oriented workers.

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Lauren Davidson is a journalist based in New York. She has written for the Wall Street Journal and the Times of London.

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