The Washington Post

Have a job you love? Thank your mother

Stephanie Nguyen, 24, and Vinh Nguyen, 53. Read Stephanie's story in "Not My Mother's World." (Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

The key to not growing up to be money obsessed and unhappy at work is simple: Have a strong relationship with your mother.

It has been understood since the 1970s that our initial development of values and behaviors happens during our middle- and high-school years. And research has consistently shown that, despite the influence of friends and media, parents have the greatest role in shaping these patterns.

What’s been less clear until now is the difference in impact that mothers and fathers have. So prior to receiving her doctorate and joining Google, Kathryn Dekas partnered with her University of Michigan faculty adviser, Wayne Baker, to explore how parents affect the work lives of kids once they leave the nest.

They knew based on previous research — including seminal work by their colleague, Amy Wrzesniewski — that people tend to identify with one of three work orientations and maintain that orientation throughout their entire careers, regardless of job type.

Some people see work as a vehicle for material reward, but not fulfilling in and of itself. They are the TGIF crowd, enduring the work week in order to financially support interests outside their jobs.

The second group defines work as a means toward social status, achievement and prestige. They work to fuel a positive sense of identity and are likely the first to sign up to attend high-school reunions so they can report on their success to their peers.

The final group finds the act of work inherently meaningful and rich in purpose. For them, work is the manifestation of their passions and, often, a force for good in the world.

Wrzesniewski and her colleagues found that this third group has higher job and life satisfaction than people with other work orientations have.  They also tend to be more successful and higher performers, in large part because they are more loyal and better collaborators.

Now here’s where mothers and fathers come in. Dekas and Baker wanted to understand the role that parents play in our adoption of these orientations. They weren’t surprised when their research found that the relationship with our parents during adolescence is the primary driver of our work inclinations. But they were surprised by this: how different the bearing of each parent would be on our careers. (At least in families with two parents of different genders.)

Children who have strong relationships with their mothers don’t end up with a work orientation that is all about material gain. Being close to our mother, it turns out, provides us with a value set that prevents us from putting money first and simply punching a clock.

Mothers are also necessary in raising kids who view work as meaningful, and therefore go on to have high satisfaction in their professional and personal lives. The research found that children are not likely to have a purpose-driven view of work unless they perceive their mother to model that behavior. Fathers with that value held significantly less sway.

Fathers could, however, hurt their kid’s odds at having a fulfilling life — even if they can’t significantly help them. Those fathers perceived to have a conflicting work orientation, focusing on money or status, hamper a child’s ability to adopt the mother’s purpose-orientation.

And it’s worth keeping in mind that the people who participated in this survey were raised in the 1980s. In the last 30 years, women have become more integrated into the workforce and leadership roles, which should only increase their influence on the next generation’s views of work.

So, it appears that in addition to typically holding the lion share of household responsibilities, mothers also carry the greater onus for ensuring our kids have rich and rewarding careers. We need to start doing a much better job of celebrating and supporting them in this critical role. After all, the gift of seeing work as a place for passions rather than chores is probably the best gift you can give a kid.

Aaron Hurst is the CEO of Imperative and the author of "The Purpose Economy: How Your Desire for Impact, Personal Growth and Community is Changing the World.”

Read also:

Working for women

Not my mother's world

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