Like Father, Like Son: How Much Nepotism Is Too Much?

More than one-fifth of employed American men who grew up in the same household as their fathers wind up in the same workplace as them by the time they turn 30.

Mike Segar / Reuters

In conversations about social mobility in America, it’s assumed that wealthier, better-connected parents will use that wealth and those connections to set up their children with the best possible opportunities, regardless of vocation. But the rate at which people hold the same occupations as their parents—sometimes even at the same company—provides another lens for thinking about how class status is passed down through generations.

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. For women that figure is 13 percent. (Of course, this isn’t an American phenomenon. In Denmark, 28 percent of sons have worked for an employer that appeared on their dads’ résumé around the time they turn 30. In Canada, it’s 40 percent.)

Even though more than one-fifth of those working American men under 30 have worked alongside their fathers, that percentage varies depending on income. If a man’s father is in the highest 10 percent of American earners, he’s more than 1.5 times as likely to share an employer than if his father is in the lowest 10 percent. When it comes to the likelihood that a father will work with his son, there’s a significant earnings gap.

The Percentage of Men Working for the Same Employer as Their Father in 2010, by Earnings Decile
U.S. Census Bureau

A recent New York Times analysis quantified the sometimes astronomical advantages that the offspring of the famous and powerful have over those with less distinguished parents. The sons of senators, for instance, were roughly 8,500 times more likely to become senators than the average American man. Sons of famous CEOs and Pulitzer Prize-winners had similarly outlandish edges over their non-famous, non-Pulitzer-winning competition. This is interesting, but it says more about how impenetrable (and name-brand-driven) certain echelons are than it does about a phenomenon that is pervasive at all levels of American society—not just rarefied ones. (Daughters are oftentimes secondary to son in studies like these, perhaps because not as much historical data is out there on working women and perhaps because the theories explaining women’s social mobility are more complicated.)

How exactly are these job-inheritance patterns perpetuated? One answer—an incomplete one, but still an important one—is household culture. An auto mechanic will instill different interests in her children than will an architect, and a child exposed to, say, tinkering, might be more prone to spending time in the garage than at the drafting table. “In the aftermath of the World Trade Center collapse,” wrote David Grusky, a professor at Stanford, with three other sociologists in a 2011 article, “we can imagine the engineer’s family talked mainly about why the building failed structurally, whereas the sociologist’s family talked mainly about why there is terrorism.” Generational torch-passing takes place gradually, and is folded into daily routines. It’s about watching Shark Tank as a family. It’s about talking mergers and acquisitions at the dinner table.

But household culture has another important effect that runs deeper than just skill sets and hobbies. Sociologists have argued that a parent’s class and occupation can shape what his or her child hopes for in a job, and in life. For example, the daughter of an entrepreneur is more likely to seek autonomy in her professional endeavors, just as the son of a cubicle-dweller will fantasize about stability.

Taken as a whole, is this nepotistic system acceptable, or something to be resisted and dismantled? Grusky and his fellow sociologists end their article by discussing the moral implications of processes that pass jobs down through generations:

“[They] are problematic because they imply that human choice has been circumscribed, a circumscription that is wholly determined by the accident of birth. We care, in other words, that the truck driver is fated to become a truck driver at birth because that amounts to a stripping away of choice, and most of us would embrace an open society in which choices are expanded, not stripped away. … [This matters because a job] determines the texture and content of a human life.”

More than a decade ago, Adam Bellow (son of Saul), wrote in The Atlantic about why he thought differently, arguing that the current incarnation of nepotism contained a sufficient amount of meritocracy. “The new nepotism operates not from the top down but from the bottom up: It is voluntary, not coercive; it springs from the initiative of children, not the interest of parents,” he wrote.

Today, Bellow’s manifesto comes across as a bit tone-deaf and a little too deliberately contrarian. He spends just one paragraph discussing the way in which nepotism hurts women trying to break into male-dominated professions, and America’s entire African American population is lumped into that same passing acknowledgement. It warranted a single sentence.

Miles Corak, a professor of economics at the University of Ottawa, explained to me that Bellow’s distinctions between “good” and “bad” nepotism, whether he knew it or not, have some economic grounding. “On the one hand, connections, contacts, and raw power can be at the root of kids following their family's footsteps—in which case productivity of the economy is not enhanced,” he says. “On the other hand … kids get a leg up in skill development from their parents and this is what drives the intergenerational transmission of jobs—and contributes to higher productivity.”

Ultimately, the fear that lives will be “determined by the accident of birth” should outweigh the hope that nepotism comes with the incidental economic efficiencies Bellow outlines. But when it comes to solutions, some sociologists have thrown up their hands. “It is troubling that [a child’s class outcome] is deeply rooted in family dynamics and may require unacceptably intrusive policy to root it out,” wrote Grusky and his co-authors. “Although our results provide some insight, then, into why contemporary efforts to equalize opportunity have underperformed, they do not necessarily lead us to any wholesale rethinking of those efforts.”