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Vol. 16, No. 1. 
1546-2676. Editor: Dorothy I. Mitstifer. Official publication of Kappa Omicron Nu National Honor Society. Member,
Association of College Honor Societies. Copyright © 2005. Kappa Omicron Nu FORUM is a refereed, semi-annual publication serving the profession of family and consumer sciences. The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of the society. Further information: Kappa Omicron Nu, PO Box 798, Okemos, MI 48805-0798. Telephone: (727) 940-2658 ext. 2003

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Mothers and Millenials: Career Talking Across the Generations


Peggy S. Meszaros, Elizabeth Creamer, Carol Burger, Jennifer Matheson


This paper explores career decision communication between mothers and daughters living in the information age. Qualitative data from telephone interviews of eleven matched pairs of mothers and their high school daughters indicate that daughters are turning first to their mothers for career advice and communication is taking place while simple routine tasks of daily living are performed. Findings suggest generational differences in communication with quality and quantity of conversation about careers improving. Mothers are a source of career information for their daughters and could benefit from additional resources about non-traditional careers so that the guidance they provide to their Millennial daughters in this information age includes a wide range of career options.


The influence of family is an important force in preparing young women for their career roles. Females form many of their attitudes and career interests as a result of interactions with their families, especially their mothers. The purpose of this article is to report an exploratory, qualitative research study of mother-daughter communication patterns around career issues, as evidenced by interviews with eleven matched pairs of mothers and daughters. We begin by examining the context for this study in family and adolescent career development, the mother-daughter kinship bond, the influence of mothers’ career on her daughter, and mother-daughter career conversations. The overarching goal of this exploratory paper is to increase understanding of family communication about careers, specifically mother and daughter communication in the information age.

Family Context and Adolescent Career Development

One of the results of research on adolescents in the past two decades is a renewed emphasis on the family as the context for adolescent development (Gecas & Self, 1990). Family processes of interaction, communication, and behavior influence what the child learns about work and work experiences (DeRidder, 1990). Because career choice is one of the primary developmental tasks of adolescence, it represents an important focus for constructive parent-adolescent engagement.

Career development is a life long process that begins as early as four years old (Seligman, Winstock, & Heflin, 1991; Super, Savickas, & Super, 1996). Parents’ influence on career development begins at this early age and takes place in everyday family interactions (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1996). Parents are the single most influential factor in the career development and career choice making by their children (Orfield & Paul, 1994; Trusty, 1996), but parents are not adequately informed about how to help (Jeffery, Lehr, Hache, & Campbell, 1992; Young, 1994). Parents have more influence over their children’s careers than peers (Sebald, 1989), teachers (Poole, Langan-Fox, Coavarella, & Omodei, 1991), and other relatives (Peterson, Stivers, & Peters, 1986). In addition, studies have shown that parents have a great deal of power in influencing their children’s interests—not only in traditional, often sex-typed job fields, but also in non-traditional fields as well (Hackett & Betz, 1981, Lunneborg, 1982). Although parents hold a powerful role in career advising of both their male and female children, most of the reported studies focus on male children. Researchers are just beginning to develop a knowledge base for the career development of girls and the unique issues they face in deciding on a career. A theme that is beginning to emerge in the literature is the influence of mother’s role in career advice (Noller & Callan, 1990; O’Brien & Fassinger, 1993).

Mother-Daughter Bond: The Closest Kin Link

It should come as no surprise that mothers are influencing their daughter’s career choices as various classical studies have reported that the mother-daughter bond is the closest link between kin. These bonds are especially vivid in the writings of Willmott and Young (1960) and Townsend (1957) as they observed family life in London in the late 1950s. In her study of American working class families, Komarovsky (1962) looked across the generations and reported that wives often use their mothers as confidantes and that a “wife’s emotional investment in her mother remains strong” (pp. 208, 246). In a more recent study, Elizabeth Brown-Guillory (1996) assembled a collection of original essays that explore the mother-daughter relationships of women of color. A chapter in her book describes the intergenerational ties and communication patterns found in Amy Tan’s books, The Joy Luck Club (1989) and The Kitchen God’s Wife (1991). In these stories the daughter’s sense of self was intricately linked to their ability to speak to and be heard by their mothers (Foster, 1996). Communication, specifically conversations and dialogue, formed the basis of their close ties. This type of discourse is defined to include not only spoken language but also other kinds of meaningful communication, such as visual images and nonverbal movements (Bavelas, Kenwood, & Phillips, 2002).

Mother-Daughters and Careers

Girls are still being exposed to sexist ideas and attitudes in classrooms and at home, despite their changing roles in society (Farmer & Associates, 1997). Girls may no longer receive strong messages that their place is exclusively in the home, but neither do they receive the same messages that boys do about the importance of their career paths. The mother as a powerful role model for her daughter’s career aspirations, especially non-traditional careers, has been documented in several studies. Lunneborg (1982) found that in a sample of women holding non-traditional occupations, the majority had mothers who had positive attitudes about work, had close relationships with their daughters, and found adhering to traditional gender roles unimportant. Most of these women also had mothers that had been employed from the time of their birth to the present day. Fleming and Hollinger, (1994) found that girls who had mothers working in professional positions were more likely to strive for and obtain high level professional careers. Role modeling and observations obviously formed powerful images for these girls and their career aspirations. Were they also talking to their mothers about careers?

Mother-Daughters and Talk/Conversations/Dialogue

Noller and Callan (1990) revealed that adolescent females of all ages reported talking more often with mothers than did adolescent males, believed they disclosed more to mothers than fathers, and were more satisfied after conversations with mothers than with fathers. Mothers were seen as more open and interested in their daughters’ day-to-day problems while fathers were seen as more likely to impose their authority upon their children. A search of the literature found no studies of mother/daughter conversations about careers, making our exploratory research an important addition to the field.

Need for This Study

Researchers over the years have noted the importance of parents to the career development of their daughters. In 1987, Betz and Fitzgerald called for studies that addressed the influence of psychological connectedness and identification with parents on the career development of women. O’Brien & Fassinger (1993) documented empirical findings about the importance of mothers to their daughters’ career development in terms of attitudes and modeling. Research focusing on relationships between career choice and specific maternal variables such as educational level and gender role beliefs has been conducted (Zuckerman, 1981; Booth & Amato, 1994; Mickelson & Velasco, 1998). Still, studies investigating the role of mother and daughter communication as a factor in the career choices of young women are noticeably missing.

The need to explore career development in girls is increasingly important in this age of information. The perpetuation of sex stratification and sex segregation in the labor market has exacerbated problems among the growing numbers of female-headed households and increased the economic strains of modern family life (Reid & Stephens, 1985). Given the projections for continued female workforce entry and the lack of women in the pipeline of many emerging and high compensation non-traditional fields (Veneri, 1998; Bebbington, D., 2002), this study seeks to understand the role and importance of mother-daughter career communication today and how it may differ from that of earlier generations.

Specific research questions we sought to answer were: What are the precipitating events and locations for career conversations between mothers and daughters today? What is the content of the career communication? What intergenerational career messages have been given by mothers and daughters? Is the historically strong mother-daughter bond a good place to focus efforts for improved career information, making more females aware of opportunity in today’s economy?

Research Methodology

Description of Sample

This exploratory, qualitative study of 11 matched pairs of mothers and high school daughters, ages 16-18, is part of a larger study funded by the National Science Foundation (NFS).1 The population for this study was female high school sophomores from 10 urban and suburban high schools in Virginia and their mothers. Ten of the dyads were European American and one dyad was African American.

The females in this study bridge three distinct time periods. The mothers interviewed for this study were born between 1944-1960 (36-56 years old) and can be classified as Baby Boomers. General descriptors of this cohort include experiencing the post World War II economic boom, being optimistic workaholics striving for self-realization, and growing up when a majority of their moms stayed home and dads worked outside the home. As many of them reached adulthood, the women’s liberation movement was beginning and the role of women in the workplace was changing dramatically (Strauss & Howe, 1992).

The high school students interviewed are daughters of the Baby Boomers and part of a cohort known as Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000). They have never known a world without cell phones, CDs, computers, or MTV (Hatfield, 2002); tend to be over-supervised with parental attention (Lovern, 2001); have a higher rate of parental involvement in school and work environments (Brownstein, 2000); and enjoy mentoring relationships with experts (Lovern, 2001). They seek a balanced work/life style and have little expectation of working for one company or even one industry for life (Lovern, 2001).

The mothers of the Baby Boomers, and grandmothers of the Millennials are representative of a cohort known as Matures or Veterans. They were born between 1922-1943 and are sometimes called the Silent Generation. They grew up during the Great Depression and World War II when frugality and conservatism were common values. If they were in the paid labor force they tended to leave once they had children and to view marriage and motherhood as central to their lives (Fischer, 1991). They experienced the early beginnings of a changing workforce with emerging opportunities and expectations for women (Hatfield, 2002).

There have been many changes in women’s roles between these generations of mothers and daughters. The mothers interviewed for this study grew up in a time the sociologists have called “the era of the family,” when marriage and birth rates were unusually high, and movies and magazines emphasized traditional wife/mother roles for women. Their daughters, the Millennials, live in a time period when the ideology of feminism is familiar and publication, consumption, and manipulation of information via computers is common.


Study participants were selected from a larger NSF funded study that included a 118-item survey, distributed in spring 2002 through institutional contacts. During the following year we conducted two in-depth telephone interviews with girls and their mothers separately. Twenty-five high school sophomores and their mothers participated in the first round of telephone interviews. All first round pairs were invited to participate in the second round. Results reported here are from the second interviews and include 11 matched pairs of mothers and daughters chosen on the basis of their first interviews with the criteria being their willingness and availability to participate in a second interview. Several of the original study participants had moved, changed phone numbers, or were not available during the time period of the study.

At the time of the interviews all 11 daughters had plans to attend community college, junior college, or a 4-year university immediately after high school. These results may not reflect the experience of all mothers and daughters and should not be generalized beyond the present study.   

We designed two research protocols, one for the mothers and one for the daughters. They included an introductory letter explaining the research, a script for the interviewer, and questions for the phone interview. Two female interviewers were trained using the protocols and conducted two pretest interviews. Based on the pretests we revised the protocols and questions to clarify wording and streamline the data collection process.

Two weeks after the letters were sent to potential participants we began making initial phone contacts. Those who agreed to participate but did not have time to be interviewed during the initial phone contact were scheduled for a later date and time. Although we had full informed consent from each mother and daughter at the beginning of the project, we provided additional information about this phase of data collection and secured verbal consent before beginning the interview. All participants agreed to have their interview audio-taped. Pseudonyms were assigned to each participant to ensure confidentiality of responses.


All audiotapes were transcribed by trained research team members, and then imported into Atlas.ti qualitative analysis software for data management and analysis. Two team members cross-coded all interviews simultaneously and met periodically to check each other’s coding to ensure consistency. They worked together to develop a list of emergent themes and to produce reports of the results of the interviews.

We examined the categories and patterns that emerged from 22 audio taped, transcribed, and coded telephone interviews conducted during fall 2003. Using an applied family communication qualitative research approach suggested by Whitchurch and Dickson (1999), we explored the meaning-centered, private nature of mother/daughter dyad interactions as messages about careers were communicated across the generations. This type of research examines communication and problems that occur in real families and seeks to increase understanding. We examined the emerging themes as mothers and daughters talked across the generations.


Precipitating Events and Locations for Conversation

The mother-daughter bond described in the literature (Brown-Guillory, 1996; Komarovsky, 1962; Townsend, 1957; Young, 1960) was evident in the communication patterns of our sample of mothers and their Millennial daughters. When asked whom they talked to about their future, seven of the eleven high school girls identified their mother first, followed by friends, grandmothers, parents (both Mom and Dad), and teachers. The girls and mothers used familiar settings as the location for the majority of their conversations rather than using modes of technology such as cell phones or computers to communicate. Their career conversations were initiated by individual or both the mother and the daughter and were often linked with conversations about college and majors. Frequently there were precipitating events for the communication such as a conversation that was started when Alison brought home her report card. She said, “I got my report card and I brought it for her to see. She just asked me how school is going and what I wanted to do and stuff like that.”

Being together at home doing routine things was frequently the setting for communication between mother and daughter. Linda illustrated where and when her conversations with her mother occurred when she said, “It usually comes up when I’m doing my homework or when Mom is cooking dinner.” Doing things together outside of the home also gave some mother and daughter pairs a chance for communication. For Abby, the conversation flowed at weekly meetings that her entire family attended:

“Well, we’ve always had a good communication between us. It’s just, it’s always been there, you know? And ever since I was very little we had time where we sat together and just talked about issues, they just seemed to come up because…we have meetings three times a week, religious meetings . . . . You know, [we] talked about growing up and making decisions in careers . . . .”

Something as simple as reading the mail together was a setting for some communication. Claire, a mother, remembers, “Yesterday when she got home and was looking at the mail, at this application…that, you know created a conversation.” When Donna thought about her career conversations with her mother, the precipitating events were diverse:

“Well, I think usually before dinner and watching TV or riding in the car. We would talk about everything. It was probably me who started it and I think we were talking about college. We were probably just at home around the house somewhere. And I was just telling her which ones I was looking into and she asked what I wanted to study and which ones had the best programs for it.”

College was assumed to be the next logical step in the career path after high school for the adolescent girls in our study. The link between careers and college was clear in Alison’s description of conversations with her mom:

“Well, my Dad works really late and so sometimes we’ll talk about it over dinner or something. Or she’ll come up here and sit on my bed and talk about it. She’ll ask me how school is going and my grades. And she’ll ask what I want to do in college, what I want to study.”

The most frequently reported location for conversations was a car, a setting providing both time and opportunity for talking. Daughters reported that their mother picked them up from school events or that they talked during long-distance car trips. Margaret described the location for her communication when she said, “. . . I guess it’s been kind of mostly, you know, a car thing . . . . I think we were driving in the car so we had lots of time to talk.”

Content of Communication

Young and Friesen (1992) found that parents believe that they can lay a suitable groundwork for career development of their children by influencing them broadly to become responsible and capable human beings. Most mothers in our study reported that they did not want to influence the specific occupational choice of their children. Career conversations between mothers and daughters reflected this non-directive communication. Their conversations with their daughters often reflected messages of support, encouragement, and making good decisions about a career. Rather than directing their daughters to a specific career, the mothers we interviewed served more as sounding boards and guides to other resources including the Internet and libraries. Just being happy in their chosen career was a recurrent message from Mom. For instance, Alison shares, “My Mom, she’s pretty supportive of whatever I want to do. She just wants me to do something that I will enjoy. So I have no problem talking to her about that every now and then.” Several mothers focused on decision-making skills and encouraged their daughters to think about the consequences of their choices as this mother, Emily said, “I tried to get her to think about her decision and what could happen if she does that…she has two choices and is old enough to make her choices and she will have to suffer the consequences no matter what they are.” Another mother, Claire, used an even more direct approach when she said, “So basically [I] just laid out the options, and discussed the pros and cons of it.” Encouraging a smart choice as her daughter thinks about a career and what college to attend, Carol said, “It doesn’t bother me what she, whatever she decides to do. That’s fine with me. But, I’m trying to encourage her to make a smart choice about where to go.” Several mothers served in the role of providing an active information resource beyond just encouraging their daughters’ good decisions. Joan said:

“. . . we just talk about a lot of the things like the pay and how long I wanna go to college and what I really, really want to do and stuff like that . . . . Mom gets me, like she goes to libraries and stuff and tried to get me as much information and like she went to the library and got on the Internet.”

Intergenerational Career Messages

Mothers of the Millennial daughters interviewed expressed little career guidance or conversations with their parents as they were growing up. Most were currently in traditional female work roles such as teaching, nursing, or being a homemaker. When asked how they decided on a path for their own lives, they often described “falling into jobs” rather than a more systematic plan for a career or responding to parental or school guidance. Career conversations with their own mothers were reported as non-existent and the role models they observed in their daily lives were females in traditional roles. They reported wanting something better for their own daughters and their communication included messages of support and encouragement for higher education and careers. Sandra described her experience of having no conversations, little guidance, and expectations of a traditional life style. She said:

“I didn’t come from parents who went to college, they always started a job and worked their way up. My mom didn’t work, so, so I had to go by my dad. And I did go to college for a couple semesters because I was gonna be a nurse, but, but my dad really wasn’t a college guy, so I didn’t have any, they never talked about me going to school and being anything and they never, I never had anybody in the school talk to me about it and I, I don’t recall having anybody at all in the family ever say anything to me about going to college and being anything. I know we were raised to get married and have kids right away where we were.”

Other women echoed this sentiment. Traditional role models were all Carol saw. She said:

“I decided to be a nurse. I could have gone to medical school and I didn’t. I mean, could have done more than what I did but I stuck with the nurse role, the subservient taking care of somebody role, those were the kinds of careers that were, that I remember being encouraged when I was . . . a school teacher or a nurse, traditional female jobs.”

A frequent expression of “falling into a job” was reflected by several of the mothers when they described their own career plans. Claire pointed out, “Before I became pregnant with my first child, I worked for a few months in a children’s toy and bookstore, and I taught piano for two years, and that one just kinda fell in my lap.” Mary had a similar reaction when asked how she decided on the path for her life. She said, “It just kinda happened. I mean I enjoyed working with the numbers and stuff as far as the secretarial stuff and typing. I enjoyed stuff like that. I just…fell into it.” Wanting something better for her own daughter, Elizabeth reported being determined to connect with her daughter through messages about a career. She reported having hard working parents who instilled a strong work ethic in her but finances were short and there was no money for her further education. She wants more for her daughter as she reflects; “My parents didn’t have, I would say, as much influence in my life and academically as I would have liked. Not as much as I do with my daughter . . . . I made a conscious decision that what I lacked, I made up for it through her. In other words, what I would have wanted for myself, I gave it to her.”


This exploratory, qualitative study set out to understand mother-daughter communication about careers in the information age and how these conversations may have changed over time. Through telephone interviews of eleven matched pairs of mothers and their high school daughters, we sought to learn where and how mothers and daughters are communicating about careers today, who initiates the conversations, what is the content of their communication, and how career communication between mothers and daughters may have changed from earlier generations.

Our research indicated that the mothers and daughters we interviewed were communicating. They talked frequently about careers coupled with assumptions about going on to college. The majority of high school girls in our study reported turning to their mother first for career advice. Moreover, they made their mother a part of the process of exploring options for both a career and where to go to school. They used the simple tasks of daily living to initiate conversations while watching TV together, cooking dinner, doing homework, or riding in a car. The frequency and comfort level of talking to their mother mirrors the findings in the Noller and Callan (1990) study that found adolescent females talking more often to their mothers than their fathers as mothers were seen as more open and interested in the day-to-day lives of their teenagers.

The mothers we interviewed did not direct their daughters to specific careers but rather gave messages of support and encouragement that included finding a career they would enjoy and being happy in their choices. This finding supports the Young and Friesen (1992) finding that most parents believe their job is to lay a suitable groundwork for career development rather than influencing the specific occupational choice for their children. This non-directive support had mothers serving as sounding boards for their daughters as well as active participants in seeking additional information from the Internet, libraries, and other sources. Knowing more about the actual sites they visited on the Internet or career materials they found in the library would be helpful in evaluating their knowledge of contemporary career options for their daughters.

We found a marked difference in the intergenerational messages mothers gave daughters about careers. Although the Baby Boomer mothers often reported non-existent career communication from their own mothers, they seemed determined to change this pattern with their daughters. Instead of “falling into a job” as several mothers experienced, they were an active part of the process of their daughters decision-making about a career and future plans. The quality and quantity of their conversations was much improved over their own experience talking to their mothers.

Finally, while the present study contributes to our understanding of a selected group of mothers and daughters, it is only a beginning, exploratory study. Future studies should seek larger and more diverse samples of mothers and daughters and include more questions of parent’s career knowledge. Mothers are a source of career information for their daughters and could benefit from additional resources about non-traditional careers so that the guidance they provide to their Millennial daughters in this information age includes a wide range of career options.


1This research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, Women in Information Technology: Pivotal Transitions From School to Careers, Proposal Number 01-18219-03.


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Drs. Meszaros, Creamer, and Berger and Ms. Matheson are located in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Virginia.

For further information about manuscripts: 

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