For some folks a job is just that, a means to a pay check, while for others its the road to fulfillment or even a sacred calling. What determines which of these three work orientations you fall into?

That’s the question a team of researchers from the University of Michigan recently set out to determine. Their work is built on earlier research from Yale School of Management professor Amy Wrzesniewski that divides workers into three so-called orientations. Look around the office today and you’ll probably find a representative or two of each:

  • Job-oriented people tend to pursue their passions outside work and look forward to retirement. In the meantime, they’re mainly working for the money.

  • Career-oriented people derive much of their identity from working, and see work as a way to earn status and prestige.  

  • Calling-oriented people see work mostly as a route to personal fulfilment or a way to follow their passions. They want their work to make a positive impact. (Hello, Millennials!)

So whichever one of these three approaches to work describes you, how did you get that way? You could hypothesize that our profession plays a big part in determining our orientation -- it’s pretty hard (though not impossible) to see mopping floors or flipping burgers as a cause. Or maybe it’s personality. Are you born passionate or practical and this leads you towards a certain approach to work?

Nope, the researchers found, it’s mostly down to your parents. Kathryn Dekas, a UM grad and study co-author who is now working at Google, explained that "the way people see their work is fairly deep-seated, and it is influenced by the way one's parents saw their work, no matter whether parents and children share the same occupation." It’s not genetic though. It’s just a matter of following in your parents’ philosophical footsteps.

"Socialization during adolescence is the mechanism through which this persistent link is established,” said her co-author Wayne Baker, chair of management at UM's business school.

Which doesn’t mean that your later life experiences have no impact on how you view work. Unstable job prospects and other career hardships can knock the calling-orientation right out of you (again, hello, Millennials!). “If you are working in a distressed industry, that tends to swamp the effects of parental influence. I think it's hard to think about the higher purpose of your work if you are fearful of losing your job," said Baker.

Which orientation are you and do you think you got it from your parents?