A Tradition of Public Service in Families

Published date01 December 2023
AuthorAlberto Jacinto
Date01 December 2023
Subject MatterArticles
Review of Public Personnel Administration
2023, Vol. 43(4) 677 –700
© The Author(s) 2022
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0734371X221123296
A Tradition of Public Service
in Families
Alberto Jacinto1
While much is known about the public sector workforce, less is known about
parental influences as a determinant of public sector work. This paper begins to
answer this question by estimating a simple model of intergenerational transmission
to test whether public sector work is passed down in families. Data from the
National Longitudinal Survey of Youth and its intergenerational component indicate
that children of public sector mothers are five percentage points (42%) more likely to
work in the public sector than the children of private sector mothers. Heterogeneity
analyses reveal the important role unions play in the transmission of public sector
work. However, the main results do not vary by child race or gender. The results
have implications for recruitment strategies in the public sector and highlight the role
of parents as possible sources of public service motivation for children.
intergenerational transmission, public sector labor supply, public service motivation,
union membership, cultural reproduction
Nearly 15% of the U.S. workforce delivers vital social services to vulnerable popula-
tions on behalf of the public sector (Brock, 2017). The federal government maintains
the U.S. Postal Service and employs workers in the defense, international relations,
health, housing, welfare, and environmental sectors. State and local government work-
ers preside over a range of essential functions, including public safety, transportation,
health, housing, welfare, and education. The public sector’s broad purview of activi-
ties, along with ordinary staffing concerns and an aging workforce, is one reason why
1Texas Tech University, Lubbock, USA
Corresponding Author:
Alberto Jacinto, College of Education, Texas Tech University, 2520 Marsha Sharp Freeway, Mailstop 144,
Lubbock, TX 79415, USA.
Email: albertojacinto@me.com
1123296ROPXXX10.1177/0734371X221123296Review of Public Personnel AdministrationJacinto
678 Review of Public Personnel Administration 43(4)
hiring practices in this sector must attract and recruit sufficiently skilled candidates. To
do so, it is important to first understand who works in the public sector.
Public service motivation (PSM) is one factor related to working in the public sector
and is associated with individual and organizational performance in the public sector
(Ritz et al., 2016). Although PSM predicts sorting into the public sector (Holt, 2018), it
is not exclusively found in public sector employees (Gabris & Simo, 1995) and the ori-
gins of PSM remain elusive. One potential, yet relatively understudied source of PSM is
parents (Perry, 1997). The notion that PSM is a trait inherited from (i.e., taught by) par-
ents is motivated by the intergenerational transmission literature, which finds robust
relationships between parent and child wages (Solon, 1999), employers (Corak &
Piraino, 2011), levels of education (Black & Devereux, 2011), and occupations (Jacinto
& Gershenson, 2021; Jonsson et al., 2009; Laband & Lentz, 1983).
A growing literature establishes parents—specifically, parental employment sec-
tor—as an important determinant of various PSM-related outcomes in children. For
example, Stritch and Christensen (2016) show that the relationship between parents’
sector of employment and their child’s aspirations for a public service job is mediated
by PSM. Focusing on PSM, Vandenabeele (2011) finds that children of public sector
workers have higher levels of PSM than their counterparts. Lastly, Scoppa (2009)
observes a pattern of intergenerational transfers of public sector jobs in the Italian
bureaucracy. Still, the extent to which public sector work runs in families is unclear
and the mechanisms underlying this phenomenon are at best speculative.
Does public sector work entail a unique set of characteristics that make children of public
sector workers more likely to work in the public sector compared to the children of non-
public sector workers? While making normative claims about the intergenerational trans-
mission of public sector work is outside the scope of this article, it does suggest that the
public sector displays a pattern of hiring families, perhaps constraining career choices for
children and sustaining a homogeneous workforce. Determining whether children follow in
their parents’ footsteps by selecting a career in service of the public therefore becomes cru-
cial for crafting policies that attract and hire the best workers, ensure a representative public
sector workforce, and provide employment based on merit and not nepotism.
I begin to answer this question using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of
Youth (NLSY) 1979 (Bureau of Labor Statistics & U.S. Department of Labor, 2019)
and its intergenerational component, the Child and Young Adult (CYA) survey (Bureau
of Labor Statistics et al., 2019). The NLSY tracks life course experiences for U.S.
mothers and children, including a rich set of demographic and labor market activity
data. Industry data allow us to determine who was most recently employed in the pub-
lic sector. Furthermore, the ability to link children to their mothers allows me to esti-
mate the intergenerational correlation coefficient for the transmission of industries,
which is a measure of intergenerational mobility in the labor market (Solon, 1999).
Main findings show that children of public sector workers are five percentage points
more likely to work in the public sector compared to the children of non-public sector
workers. Heterogeneity analyses reveal no significant differences in the main findings
by gender and race; however, there is large and statistically significantly effect of moth-
er’s union membership. These findings point to a few potential mechanisms at play. A
formal mediation analysis reveals college degree as one mechanism underpinning the

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