Enduring disadvantages – when following in dad’s footsteps is bad for the career.

“Well he’s a chip off the old block!” – a phrase we might associate with a son who’s followed in dad’s footsteps to do well at school or into the same career. But what about when it’s a less positive story, one of enduring disadvantage? Professor Yaojun Li shares new research on the impact on a son’s job and career prospects when his father is unemployed and shows how some ethnic groups are worse affected than others.

Photo credit: Andrew Stawarz

When we talk about following in our father’s footsteps, we might think of it in positive terms – going to the same school or university, going into the family business, enjoying similar successes in our career and life.

The flip side of that coin is what sociologists and economists talk about as ‘path dependency’, where children, mostly from disadvantaged backgrounds where their father may be out of work, tend to face setbacks in their education, employment, career and ability to earn a good salary.

These sorts of ‘scarring effects’ have been well documented in recent years, including in research that shows that ethnic minority groups have been worse affected than their white counterparts.

In the late 1960s, the American sociologist Otis Duncan stressed the need to ‘distinguish between the problems of poverty and the problems of race’. His research showed that black and white men ‘in the same line of work, with the same amount of formal schooling, with equal ability, from families of the same size and same socio-economic level, simply do not draw the same wages and salaries.’ One third of the income gap between white and black men was ‘in no meaningful sense a consequence of the inheritance of poverty’, but that of race.

When dad is out of work

This article looks at the effects of father’s worklessness during his son’s adolescent years on his own risks of unemployment during adulthood. Even when the son is lucky enough to secure a job, he may still face barriers in career progress.

Combining insights from studies of social mobility and ethnic integration and examining data from the General Household Survey (GHS) and Understanding Society, we analyse the situation for white men, and first generation (G1) and second generation (G2) ethnic minority men aged 16-64.

The information is taken from the three decades when Britain faced recessions with high unemployment rates: the 1980s, early 1990s and the 2010s, and the analysis takes into account age, education, health and marital status.

Getting on the job ladder

First, we look at the probability of the son finding a job and, then, if he is able to secure a job, the likelihood of him progressing up the career ladder to a professional or managerial (salariat) position.

Figure 1: Risks of unemployment and access to the salariat for men aged 16-64 in Britain

Risks of unemployment                       Access to salariat conditional on employment


Source: General Household Survey (GHS)/Understanding Society (UKHLS)


  1. All labelled data are significant at the 5% level or above.
  2. Labelled data for the first and the second generation men show significant differences from white men.
  3. N=72,001.

Compared with white men from families where the father was in a higher salariat position (the reference group marked 0 on the graphs), those who had out-of-work fathers were 7, 6 and 8 percentage points less likely to find a job during the three periods of recession respectively. Even when they were lucky enough to get a job, they were still 15, 18 and 13 percentage points behind their counterparts from the higher salariat families when it came to reaching a salariat position.

This is clear and strong evidence of what might be called ‘scarring effects’ or enduring disadvantages.

Additional handicaps

Ethnic minority men from both first and second generations faced additional handicaps compared with white men. In terms of unemployment risks, first generation migrant men were 15, 16 and 12 percentage points behind those from higher salariat families, or 8, 10 and 4 points behind white men with equally workless fathers during their adolescent years.

It might, of course, be said that having a workless father in Britain may carry different implications from having a workless father in other countries when the father had not migrated yet. Thus a comparison between second generation men and white men probably gives a clearer picture.

Here we find that second-generation men still faced significantly greater hardships than white men from equally disadvantaged family backgrounds (in the sense of having a workless father) in finding paid employment: being 4, 5 and 2 percentage points behind their white peers in the three decades respectively.

As far as getting on and achieving a salariat position is concerned, we find that only first generation men in the 1980s and 2010s faced significant additional hurdles, at 6 and 14 percentage points. The second generation men’s misfortunes were similar to those of the white men, with some variations but no significant differences.

Detrimental impact

In summary, we find that coming from families where the father was not working when the son was aged around 14-16 has a powerful detrimental impact on their working life. They are much less likely to get a job in the first place and, even when they manage to find work, they are still much less likely to progress into professional and managerial salariat positions.

Parental worklesness thus has an enduring negative impact by creating dual handicaps, making it harder for their children to overcome the first hurdle of securing employment and still harder to reach the top of the career ladder.

It is also clear that surmounting the first hurdle is more difficult for both first and second generation men and that overcoming the second hurdle is more difficult for the first generation than for white men.

The analysis in this piece therefore shows the very powerful effect of father’s employment for both white and ethnic minority men on their working lives, and more so for the latter. The equality of opportunity is enshrined in the Law but realising the equality depends crucially on the equality of condition.

Parental social position, including employment in the case of fathers, is a powerful condition for this.

In order to reduce the dual disadvantages, it is incumbent upon the Government, employers and the wider society to try to create more employment opportunities for all so that we do not witness the kind of enduring hardships in the years to come as we have seen in this analysis.

Further readings

Blanden, J., Gregg, P. and Macmillan, L. (2013) ‘Intergenerational persistence in income and social class: the impact of within-group inequality’, JRSS, Series A: 176(2): 541-563.

Cheung, S. and Heath, A. (2007) ‘Nice work if you can get it: Ethnic penalties in Great Britain’, in Heath, A. and Cheung, S. (2007) (eds) Unequal Chances: Ethnic Minorities in Western Labour Markets. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp: 505-48.

Ermish, J. and Francesconi, M. (2000) ‘The Effects of Parents’ Employment on Children’s Educational Attainment’, IZA, Discussion Paper No. 215.

Gregg, P. (2001) ‘The Impact of Youth Unemployment on Adult Unemployment in the NCDS’. Economic Journal, 111: F626-53.

Li, Y., and Devine, F. (2011) “Is Social Mobility Really Declining? Intergenerational Class Mobility in Britain in the 1990s and the 2000s.” Sociological Research Online, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/16/3/4.html

Li, Y., and Devine, F. (2014) “Social Mobility in Britain, 1991-2011.” Pp. 79-91 in Understanding Employer Engagement in Education: theories and evidence, edited by L. Archer, A. Mann and J. Stanley. London: Routledge.

Li, Y., and Heath, A. (2008) “Ethnic minority men in British labour market (1972-2005).” International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy 28(5/6): 231-44.

Platt, L. (2005) “Intergenerational Social Mobility of Minority Ethnic Groups in Britain.” Sociology 39(3): 455-61.