Never before in history have so many young people stayed in education for so long. Across the world, young people are leaving education more highly qualified than any preceding generation. Yet, although they approach the working world with unprecedented levels of human capital, in many countries they struggle to find good jobs that reflect their skills and interests. When graduates can’t find suitable employment and recruiters can’t find the young talent they need, there is reason to look afresh at how well young people are being prepared for their lives in work.
Every three years, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) organises an assessment of hundreds of thousands of young people around the globe. Through the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), countries can compare the academic performance and perceptions of a representative sample of 15-year-olds in dozens of countries and economic areas. In a recent report, an analysis of PISA 2018 data sheds new light on the career expectations of teenagers and their relation to actual labour market demand.
From 2000, the PISA assessment has asked young people about the job they expect to have at age 30. Since then, the aspirations of teenagers have become increasingly concentrated, so much so that now one in two girls and boys across OECD countries anticipates working in one of just 10 different jobs. In the UK, 53 per cent of girls and 47 per cent of boys have these narrow aspirations. Of particular concern is that the career aspirations of young people are so closely linked to their gender and socio-economic status. Six of the occupations most commonly cited by British boys, including business manager, are not cited at all by British girls.
It may be reasonable to ask: does this really matter? Analysis by the OECD and other researchers suggests strongly that it does. Such levels of concentration show prima facie evidence of poor labour market signalling at a time when young people are approaching critical decisions about whether they will stay in education and, if so, what and where they will study. When examining young people’s expectations in light of labour market projections, it becomes clear that young people are responding in very limited ways to employer signals concerning areas of both job growth and likely automation.
Internationally, levels of concentration have grown steadily since 2000, especially among boys, weaker academic performers and children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Moreover, the PISA tests in literacy, mathematics and science give a good indication of whether a young person is capable of succeeding in higher education. UK data show that one in three of such high performers from disadvantaged backgrounds do not expect to go to university, compared to just one in 12 of their advantaged peers.
Data from longitudinal studies, which follow thousands of people from birth to adulthood, reveal that what young people think and experience about the labour market makes a difference to their adult success. Career aspirations are, to an important extent, predictive of what follows. Young people who work part-time or who engage with employers through career talks organised by their schools do better as working adults than would otherwise be expected. Children whose occupational ambitions align with their educational plans are more likely to thrive through school-to-work transitions.
In a world where jobs are subject to rapid and disruptive automation, the decisions that young people make as they stay in education longer are not only becoming more numerous, but more difficult. The challenge for schools and colleges is to help young people develop aspirations that are broad, realistic and reflective of their abilities and interests. Good career guidance begins early and broadens the aspirations of young people, giving them access to first-hand encounters with the working world. It enables young people to become informed critical thinkers about the labour market – how it works and what place they can imagine for themselves in it. To help them succeed, people in work have an essential role to play in helping teachers and guidance counsellors bring learning to life, and ensuring that young people engage in education and make their plans for the future with their eyes open to the myriad opportunities and pitfalls of working life. As the working world becomes ever more complex, such a culture of collaboration is increasingly urgent.
How can employers and governments address the mismatch between the aspirations of young people and the future of work? How can we best accompany young people to ensure they thrive in their studies, professional and personal lives? How can learning systems catch up? Through the “I am the Future of Work” campaign, the OECD is gathering stories and insights about the way the world of work is changing, and fostering solutions-oriented conversations to build a more inclusive future of work.
Anthony Mann is Senior Analyst (Education and Skills) at the OECD and lead author of Dream Jobs? Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work. Visit the “I am the Future of Work” campaign website.