What's So Bad About Nepotism? Your Thoughts

Readers complicate the view that family job connections are unearned, unfair, and unhealthy for the economy.

Actors Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith pose with their children Willow and Jaden on September 9, 2012.  (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

My colleague Joe Pinsker recently highlighted a study examining the extent to which American fathers give their children a leg up in the job market:

Starting with their first jobs as teenagers, Americans’ professional lives have a lot to do with those of their parents: According to U.S. Census data, 22 percent of working American men whose fathers were present during their teenage years will, by time they turn 30, have worked for the same employer, at the same time, as their dads.

Slātlantican shrugs at that stat:

Much ado about nearly nothing. This piece of data does not even prove that these kids ended up with careers in the same field, let alone company, as their dads. Because the way it’s phrased, this job could’ve been a starter job, or even a summer job for two months.

It simply makes sense that some kids want to grow up to “be like Dad.” And given that fact (as well as the exaggerated nature of that data), this hardly seems shocking or troubling. So what should the figure be? The article does not even attempt to answer the question its title posits.

Besides, I’m sure the figure is far lower than it was a hundred years ago.

Sammybaker nods: “Until the post-war education boom that came with the Baby Boom, most offspring followed in their parents’ footsteps, regardless of economic status, gender, life aspirations, etc.” From Adam Bellows’s 2003 book, In Praise of Nepotism:

The post-war economic boom resulted in a great expansion of the middle class, accompanied by a rights revolution, a burst of unfettered individualism, and a spreading wave of family dissolution. Many new groups entered politics, and for the first time the true diversity of American society was reflected in public affairs. Yet now the pendulum seems to be swinging back in the other direction; dynastic tendencies long associated with the hated WASP elite have reappeared.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush formally announces his presidential campaign during a kickoff rally in Miami on June 15, 2015. (Joe Skipper / Reuters)

Much of the reader debate over Pinsker’s piece was blurred by the conflation of three related but distinct things: blatant nepotism (business owners hiring family members), nepotistic networking (well-connected parents helping to secure jobs for their children through friends), or simply class privilege (well-off parents equipping their children with education and social capital that helps land them a job more easily than others). Abraham_Franklin focuses on the latter:

Pinsker writes, “Taken as a whole, is this nepotistic system acceptable, or something to be resisted and dismantled?” This “nepotism” is something to be celebrated! Thank goodness there are still a few fathers engaged enough in their children’s lives that they pass on their knowledge and interests. This reminds me of the progressive kook who thinks it’s unfair that some parents read to their kids.

Erik Vanderhoff’s dad was also engaged:

I worked for my father during two summers—right after high school and during college—as the office monkey at his law firm, doing first-year-lawyer type stuff. How many other people get their first exposure to work in the family business? It doesn’t mean it becomes their career. The argument that this “nepotism” is bad is both terribly broad and terribly axiomatic.

[Asked what he does now for a career, Erik replied: “I do whistleblower and human rights investigations and administrative due process as well as public policy. So, sort of legal by way of a background in social work and special education.”]

A chart from the Census study shows how nepotism is highest among teenagers:

Kryten8 also comments on how nepotism can indirectly benefit one’s career:

Starter jobs are important too, as well as summer jobs. I have a friend whose father owns several businesses and he worked there for a few summers. His dad refused to hire him after college (on principle, not because he was awful), but he still had the experience on his resume and got a job pretty easily.

TwoHatchet points to another part of the Census study:

Interesting that Canada has almost twice the level of nepotism [40 percent] as America [22 percent] but has a lower income inequality rating and a higher social mobility rating. Canada also has a lower proportion of its population who are disadvantaged minorities—blacks and Hispanics. Maybe future studies need to control for race and the effects of programs like affirmative action and preferential hiring. It doesn’t seem that nepotism is the big problem here.

Denmark also has a higher rate of nepotism than the U.S. (28 percent) but a much lower rate of income inequality:

Petefrombaltimore makes some excellent points regarding class:

I actually think nepotism is more common in low-wage jobs than in high-wage, white-collar jobs.  I’ve worked in low-end retail stores, bars/restaurants and in construction, and a huge percentage of my fellow employees got their jobs because they were related to, or friends with, another employee.

And I don’t see why some think it’s somehow sinister. I own my own construction company and often have employees asking me to hire relatives or friends. (Sometimes it works out, other times it doesn’t.) Lower-income workers also “network.” They just don’t use that term usually. I’ve rarely worked at a construction job where no one is related, and I’ve worked on some job sites where three or more employees have the same last name.

Many employers don’t want to hire a complete stranger. And they often figure that if “John or Jane Doe” is a good worker, then a relative of theirs or friend of theirs has a good chance of also being a good worker.

Yes, sometimes nepotism means a CEO’s nephew getting a cushy job with a firm because of who he’s related to. But it’s way more likely to mean someone knowing there’s a job opening at the local grocery store that he or she works at and then letting their son, daughter, nephew, niece, cousin, etc, know about it and putting in a good word.

That’s often how new Latino immigrants get jobs on construction sites, just like immigrants to America 100 years ago. They may have been fresh off the boat, but they often had a family member who had been in America for several years and helped them get a job where they themselves worked.

A more pessimistic view of working-class nepotism comes from Stephen J. McNamee and Robert K. Miller in The Meritocracy Myth:

Nepotism operates in all social classes, but potential benefits decline as one moves down the social-class ladder. Thus, members of the working class are also recipients of nepotism, but its payoffs are less valuable simply because the working class tends to have lower social capital. Nepotism in the working class tends to be limited to access to apprenticeships, unions, or the more “desirable” working-class occupations.

Commenter anewleaf brings up gender:

Women themselves may be more hesitant to display nepotism for a daughter, as they aren’t really part of the father-son launching tradition and may get more criticism for it. Many women report needing to prove their mettle and merit constantly at work. It’s not as acceptable for them to throw their weight around to benefit their favorites.

Hardly any research is out there examining the impact of maternal nepotism, unfortunately. I emailed Martha Stinson, co-author of the Census study that Pinsker featured, and she replied:

The one paper that I know of that looks at mothers and children sharing employers is by Francis Kramarz (from France) and Oskar Nordström Skans (from Sweden).  They use Swedish data that matches families to employers and look at fathers/mothers sharing jobs with sons/daughters.  

One of the conclusions from that 2011 working paper:

[G]ender matters: boys follow parents more than girls and paternal links matter more than maternal links. The finding that networks matter more for males concur with results from previous research on weak ties (e.g. in Bayer et al, 2008), but a novel finding is that the gender effect on the demand side is primarily driven by the type of employing plant: within plants, the gender of the parent matters much less.

Nick Shager tackled both gender and race in his Atlantic piece on “the big upside of Hollywood nepotism”:


Every member of a historically excluded group who gets a foothold in the industry opens it up for more members of that group, and nepotism is one way that happens. That’s why Jaden Smith’s career is, no matter how “unearned,” a heartening development, as is the fact that that an African-American clan like the Smiths can now get so-called “vanity projects” like After Earth released in the heart of the crowded summer movie season. That Will Smith is powerful enough to gift wrap movie-star roles for his kids is a sign of enhanced minority clout in Hollywood, and should result in more people of color in front of and behind the camera.

A similar principle is at work with women in Hollywood. The number of major female filmmakers working today is famously low--4.4 percent of Hollywood’s top 100 movies in any given year are directed by women--which makes Sofia Coppola’s career all the more significant. She may have gotten her entrée into the industry via her dad, but any entrée at all for women at this point should be welcome.

When it premiered, HBO’s Girls caused another widespread nepotism freakout, and yet look at who people were freaking out about: young women directing, writing, and starring in a hit original series. Sure, the show's existence may be in part due to who Lena Dunham’s, Zosia Mamet’s, Allison Williams’s, and Jemima Kirke’s parents are. But that’s more a commentary on the barriers that still exist for women in the entertainment industry than it is on the value of the work they create.

Commenter redzfan14 turns to another part of the entertainment industry, sports:


Pro basketball players Klay Thompson and Stephen Curry probably wouldn’t be where they are without being sons of people who worked in the same organization. Yet they also earned it, since not many things are as meritocratic as the NBA. Sports is loaded with second- and third-generations stars, from baseball’s Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. to hockey’s Howe brothers to boxing’s Floyd Mayweather to basketball’s Kobe Bryant [seen right with his father, former NBA player Joe Bryant].

There’s a chance that some marginal player got a second look from scouts because of who his dad was, but those I just mentioned were can’t-miss prospects that everyone would have loved to sign. Anyone with a basketball and a rim to play under can develop basketball skills, but clearly, growing up the son of an NBA player makes you more qualified to be one yourself, on average. But the beauty of it is that even though these second-generation athletes are over-represented, the vast majority of pro athletes are not the sons of other pro athletes.

TwoHatchet suggests that the free market will inevitably clash with preferential treatment given to family members:

The problem with incompetent nepotism can be resolved by competent competitors. You’ve likely heard the saying “From shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” and this wisdom sticks around because it works.

Harvard Business Review addressed that aphorism:

“Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” describes the propensity of family-owned enterprises to fail by the time the founder’s grandchildren have taken charge. Variations on that phrase appear in other languages, too. The data support the saying. Some 70% of family-owned businesses fail or are sold before the second generation gets a chance to take over. Just 10% remain active, privately held companies for the third generation to lead.

(Peter Mathew / Reuters)

One of the world’s most powerful family-run businesses is going through a major shakeup, as my colleague David Graham covered last week:

In every empire with an aging monarch, the hint of a new crown price is enough to whip courtiers into a frenzy. So it was Thursday, when CNBC reported, based on inside sources, that James Murdoch, Rupert’s son [seen above, right], is being tapped to take his father’s chair as CEO of 21st Century Fox.

There’s a great deal that’s still unclear about the change—for example, when it will happen and exactly what role James Murdoch will play. His older brother Lachlan [seen above, center] is also getting a new role, as co-chairman. There’s also some questions about how serious a role change this is. The 84-year-old Australian mogul doesn’t seem ready to fade off into retirement anytime soon. CNBC cautioned that “no one doubts the elder Murdoch will still have the final say on whatever goes on at Fox.” (Markets, apparently not so sure, battered Fox’s stock after the news.)

What are your experiences with nepotism? Anything we overlooked that you want to weigh in on? Email hello@theatlantic.com and I’ll update the post. Update from a reader:

It’s not about whether nepotism should be treated as a dirty word. It’s about greater equal fairness that is missing in our society regarding economic opportunities for those who never came from wealth or privilege. Too many employers, families, colleges, civil service, and communities have been abusing the American economic system at their advantage while pushing and isolating those who never had the resources to gain anything for better job prospects.

Nepotism is a nasty discrimination practice from Ancient Rome, which lead to its downfall in C.E. 800, and it was one of the leading causes of deep corruption in the Vatican during Pope Alexander VI reign when members of his elite family in Italy were paid off for political kickbacks. There is nothing positive about nepotism in any Western society, other than it’s a form of smack dab elitism against the disfranchised masses who need the most help to gain in this economy.

Another view from a reader:

Nepotism isn’t always bad, as people have always had family businesses where questionable family members were given a chance, but in publicly traded companies the incompetent ones tend not to last long and in privately held ones they go out of business.  

The same goes for examples in the entertainment industry. While an entertainer can give their children a leg up in that world, the kid still needs talent, dedication, charisma and luck to do something with that chance. See Frank Sinatra Jr., Cameron Douglas, Sean Brosnan, Jack Osbourne, etc., for ready examples.