Our Views on Work-Life Integration May Come From Our Parents

This is both surprising, and also not so surprising.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

We inherit a lot of things from our parents: genes, accents, sports allegiances. But according to a new study published in Human Relations, our parents might also pass down their views on managing work and life.

The study focused on how our parents’ work-life outlook affects our own. The result? “We are not blank slates when we join the workforce,” co-author Dr. Ioana Lupu, from Queen Mary University of London, said in the press release. “Many of our attitudes are already deeply ingrained from childhood.”

Lupu and her colleagues interviewed 78 male and female employees working at legal and accounting firms. The resulting 148 interviews about work, life and parenting were divided into categories that essentially sorted each person into “trying to be like their parents” or “really not trying to be like their parents” in regards to their views on balancing work and family.

The study found differences in how so-called “traditional” households, (i.e. homes where dad earned the money while mom took care of the family) affected men and women. Men raised in these homes were more likely to seem unaffected by the guilt that can arise when work and family conflict, while women with a stay-at-home mom reported wanting, as Lupu put it, to “work like their fathers” but “parent like their mothers.”

Having a working mom didn’t appear to alleviate the tension between family and career goals that many women in the study felt: daughters with working mothers were affected by having their moms away from home. One female participant recalled how what are often thought of as mom duties—picking up children from school and staying home with them when they’re sick—were “outsourced” to other people, and how that took a toll on her years later. The “exception,” as the press release put it, was found in daughters whose stay-at-home moms “instilled strong career aspirations into them from an early stage.” But that career focus, the study noted, may also have come from those mothers encouraging their daughters to take a different route. (Other research has found that men are just as conflicted about work-life issues as women, it should be noted.) 

The inheritance findings are certainly interesting: while we know children are like sponges, absorbing information around them, it’s fascinating to think that things we may think we control—like our outlook on balancing work and life—are also influenced by what our parents modeled, and how that may have seeped into our decisions regarding our own families and careers.

But if anything, the results seem more critical in offering a glimpse into how much society is changing, both in how we think about work-life integration and how we’re trying to shake loose antiquated ideas around gender and, by extension, which parent should do “home” versus “career” oriented tasks.

Hopefully, the outlook many are adopting these days—emphasizing how stay-at-home parents, regardless of gender, are doing important work, and home duties among households with two working parents being more evenly divided—will help future parents teach the next generation how to work and live in a way that's better for everybody.

Work Smarter, Women, Work-Life Integration, Work Culture