Who Cares? Intergenerational Transmission and Determinants of Working in Care Occupations

Awarded Scholars:
Maria Charles, University of California, Santa Barbara
Paula England, New York University
Project Date:
Nov 2011
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Future of Work

This 18-month project will examine the social determinants of work in care occupations and whether the propensity to engage in care work is transmitted between generations.

Employment in care industries and occupations expanded faster than overall employment in the past decade and is expected to continue to grow even more rapidly in the future. But the projected growth is a mixed blessing; it is tilted towards care work jobs at the bottom of the occupational distribution – fewer nurses and more home health aides and home personal care aides. Most of these low-level care workers will undoubtedly be women. According to estimates by Nancy Folbre and others, women comprise the great majority of the workers in care occupations – 77.5 percent compared to 47 percent of all workers. And there is some indication of occupational persistence among mothers and their daughters.

Care work, with its increasing presence in the economy and its predominantly female workforce, presents an interesting opportunity to test assumptions about the social determinants of work. What leads people to provide care as a full-time activity? Is the propensity to do care work – whether as an elite profession, a low-skilled status aide, or an unpaid homemaker – “inherited” from parents? Do gender ideologies and altruistic preferences affect who works in care occupations and, if so, how important are these factors in explaining entry into high- versus low-status care work? Are these social or cultural dimensions less important in explaining entry into low- than high-status care work? Do high-status parents produce high-status children regardless of the care work/non-care work divide, or is there some evidence of a tendency within status categories for care workers to have care-worker offspring?

Social demographers Maria Charles and Paula England want to extend previous research on mobility and intergenerational transmission of occupations by attending to what they argue is an increasingly important axis of social inequality: the care versus non-care work divide. They propose to analyze both the historical change in the intergenerational transmission of care work occupations and changes in the gender, race, ethnicity, and class composition of the U.S. workforce. Charles and England will examine whether parents’ occupations (and mothers’ domestic activities) affect the likelihood that their offspring work in care, and whether the effect is stronger for the same-sex parent. The authors will also explore how the effects of demographic and family background on going into higher-, medium-, and low-end status-paid work have changed over time. They seek to also shed light on the attitudinal and ideological mechanisms that may contribute to the reproduction of care work across generations.


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