Why it’s not enough for teenagers to say: “I want to be famous”

Teenagers who have unclear career aspirations, or whose ambitions are mismatched with their educational expectations, spend more time in unemployment as adults and earn lower wages, according to a new Sussex-led study.

Medical students"It's common to hear young people say they want to be the prime minister or a doctor, or 'famous' in some way, but not know what they need to get there," says education expert Dr Ricardo Sabates.

Dr Ricardo Sabates, a Senior Lecturer in Education, together with academic colleagues at Princeton University and Penn State University, reviewed the career paths of 17,000 individuals to find a relationship between ambition in adolescence and employment in adulthood. 

Although Dr Sabates was not surprised to find that those whose ambitions were “high and aligned” (i.e. the educationally able aiming for professional jobs) were more likely to achieve their goals, he and his colleagues were concerned by the fate of the 45 per cent of the cohort who set themselves unrealistic goals - or no goals at all. 

“It’s common to hear young people say they want to be the prime minister or a doctor, or ‘famous’ in some way, but not to know what they need to get there,” he points out. “These are the ones who can end up with poor job prospects.” 

The study, published this month in the journal Social Science Quarterly, was based on the 1970 British Cohort Study, which tracks 17,000 people - all born in 1970 - at different stages of their lives. Dr Sabates looked at the career aspirations of this group when they were 16 years of age (in 1986), and related them to earnings in the labour market at 34 (in 2004). 

The study found that, when all other background factors (such as social class and education) were taken into account, women with misaligned ambition were more than three times as likely to be unemployed between the ages of 16 and 34 than those with high and aligned ambition. Men with misaligned ambition also experienced more periods of unemployment, but the difference could be negated by background factors. 

In terms of wages, the findings showed that women with misaligned ambitions earned 17% lower wages in adulthood than women with high and aligned ambitions. The equivalent figure for men was around 8% less. And men and women with uncertain career goals earned 17% less than those with high and aligned ambitions. 

Dr Sabates recommends that the UK looks to other countries such as Japan and Germany, which have highly structured policies to help young people with the transition from school to work. 

He says: “As more youth strive for post-secondary education and professional jobs, information about prospective occupations and alignment of occupation and educational ambitions become increasingly important for youths’ ability to plan effectively for their future.”