Education Commentary

The Ambitious Generation

By Barbara Schneider — April 14, 1999 8 min read

The popular media often portray adolescents as “slackers,” drug users, and perpetrators of violent crimes. Yet, an overwhelming majority of teenagers graduate from high school, do not use hard drugs, are not criminals, and do not father or have babies while still in their teens. Many of them are willing to work hard to get good grades and assume this will make them eligible for scholarships at the colleges they plan to attend. Most are worried about their futures and believe obtaining a college degree is critical for finding a real rather than a teenage job. The bachelor’s degree is seen by these young people as the necessary first step in moving up the economic and social ladder. Many also consider graduate and professional degrees essential.

More than 90 percent of today’s high school seniors expect to attend college, and more than 70 percent aspire to work in professional jobs. A majority see themselves as physicians, lawyers, and business managers; few want to work as machinists, secretaries, or plumbers. Such high ambitions are held by teenagers from all families--rich, poor, Asian, black, Hispanic, and white. Four decades ago, the picture was quite different, with only 55 percent expecting to attend college and approximately 42 percent aspiring to work in professional jobs. Today’s adolescents are America’s most ambitious teenage generation ever.

Imagining their future work lives as filled with promise and uncertainty, teenagers believe in the value of technology, the need for specialization, and the importance of being flexible in their job choices. They envision changing their adult jobs frequently and changing their careers occasionally. Teenagers accept the volatility of the labor market and assert that the way to create a personal safety net is to obtain additional education. This focus on postsecondary education as a form of security helps explain the dramatic rise in ambitions. It also highlights the importance of the choices teenagers make for realizing their dreams.

Although very ambitious, many adolescents find it difficult to fulfill their dreams. They are unaware of the steps they can take that may help them achieve their ambitions. Often, their ambitions are not realistically connected to specific educational and career paths. Regardless of how hard they try, many teenagers find themselves running in place and unsure of where to go. More than half of high school seniors are such “drifting dreamers.” In a new book on this phenomenon, The Ambitious Generation, we explore how parents and high schools can help teenagers make better choices as they think about whether to attend a two- or four-year postsecondary institution or enter the labor market directly after high school.

Our work presents the first longitudinal results from the Alfred P. Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development, one of the most detailed and comprehensive national studies of adolescents in the 1990s. More than 1,000 adolescents from 12 different geographical locations across the country participated in this five-year study of their daily lives and their plans for the future. These adolescents from all regions of the country were followed as they changed schools or residences, graduated from high school, and went on to work or college. It is a rich data set that allowed us to examine adolescents’ views of their futures and how their ambitions influence the choices they make during and after high school.

While each adolescent’s ambitions are personal and have unique features, they are shaped by the social world in which teenagers live. Ambitions are influenced by the actions of parents, teachers, and high school counselors. One characteristic of adolescent ambitions that we have focused on is whether these ambitions are aligned, that is, whether the teenager’s chosen educational path matches the requirements of the occupation to which he or she aspires. Unfortunately, most adolescents do not have aligned ambitions, nor do their parents or high schools help in acquiring them.

Although today’s parents share their adolescents’ high ambitions, and many have high educational expectations for their children, they often fail to draw meaningful connections between educational credentials and future work opportunities. Parents need to take an active role in helping form their adolescents’ ambitions and assisting their teenagers in strategically organizing and managing their lives around college and work opportunities. Contrary to popular descriptions of teenagers as uninterested in the opinions of their parents, we find that they desire support and direction from parents in planning their futures. But many parents do not see it as their responsibility to actively help their adolescents form plans for their futures. Parents are often willing to depend on high schools and colleges to assume that role, only to find later that the schools did not offer the guidance that young adults need to make reasonable choices for their futures.

Unfortunately, many adolescents make uninformed choices, and the costs of making them can be great.

At certain times in their school careers, especially when making the transition from high school to college, it is important for adolescents to have a developed sense of their ambitions and the steps needed to attain them. High schools can play a major role in encouraging the development of ambitions, and one key player in this process is the guidance counselor. In the past, counselors were criticized as sorting high school students into two major career tracks: the labor market or postsecondary education. Today, guidance counselors, for the most part, perceive their role as helping all students “get into college.” This universal message on the desirability of college is often given without advice about what courses are needed for admission or how to select a college that matches the student’s interests, talents, and plans for the future. Instead of helping students navigate the curricular maze of the high school, the focus is on taking courses that build an academic portfolio perceived as desirable to competitive colleges and universities. Worrying about getting into the “best” college has become more important to students, parents, and counselors than trying to help students make choices that are right for them.

A basic choice facing today’s adolescents is whether to begin college at a two-year or a four-year institution. More and more students who expect to obtain a bachelor’s or graduate degree are deciding to begin their college studies at two-year institutions. Unfortunately, this decision creates what we call an “ambition paradox"--students with high ambitions choosing an educational route with low odds of success. Students who have unrealistic educational goals for the types of jobs they would like to have as adults are more likely to be caught in this paradox. Parents, high schools, and colleges can and should do more to prevent this misalignment of ambitions and reality.

Nearly all of today’s adolescents have some kind of paying “teenage job"--fast-food server, sales clerk, grocery bagger--that will have little influence on the formation of their ambitions. In contrast, work internships in high school could expose these students to real and responsible jobs that would help them develop knowledge and skills that could be transferred to other settings. Few high schools engage in such activities, however, and instead encourage students to take the teenage jobs.

The social world of today’s young people can also undermine the formation of ambitions. Teenagers spend considerable periods of time outside of school alone; they have few friends for longer than several months; few of them have steady girlfriends or boyfriends, and some even claim not to have a best friend. The social groups that teenagers belong to are very fluid, according to our study, and young people move easily from group to group. High schools can provide a helpful antidote to this instability by encouraging students’ active involvement in activity-based groups, such as those centered around community service, theater, music, or athletics. In contrast to the fluid peer social groups to which most teenagers belong, such activity-based groups are more stable and often can help transmit information about adult career opportunities, as well as develop positive values about work.

Small choices, such as which courses to take in high school, can influence teenagers’ preparation for college. Other choices, such as whether to enroll in a two-year or four-year college, can influence their chances of earning a bachelor’s degree. Unfortunately, many adolescents make uninformed choices, and the costs of making them can be great. Changing college majors several times, taking five years to complete a bachelor’s degree, and finishing college not knowing what to do are some of the problems faced by young adults who make poor decisions based on too little information.

The time and energy young people put into going to college, and the resources and effort their parents and schools expend in helping them make the transition, can be substantial. Much of this effort, however, focuses on a single objective: “getting into college.” What needs more attention from high schools and parents is the process of developing coherent ambitions and making meaningful choices that fulfill them.

Barbara Schneider is a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. David Stevenson is the assistant director for social and behavioral sciences in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. This essay is based on their book, The Ambitious Generation: America’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless, published this month by Yale University Press. The views of the authors are their own and do not represent their institutions.

A version of this article appeared in the April 14, 1999 edition of Education Week as The Ambitious Generation