The Game of Life

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Ask a high school student what career he or she expects to have, and the answer would probably run something like this: a doctor or a movie star; a lawyer or a professional athlete; an electrician or a corporate executive. The projections would most likely be all over the map and wildly unrealistic.

That is what researchers at the University of Chicago and the National Opinion Research Center found after studying for the past five years how young people develop ideas about careers and work. The $3 million Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development, named after its sponsor, the Alfred Sloan Foundation of New York, is one of the most comprehensive looks at the subject to date. Cambridge University Press plans to publish a book on the findings next spring.

The researchers have followed a nationally representative sample of slightly more than 1,000 students in grades 6, 8, 10, and 12. The students come from 33 schools in 12 locales around the country. The sites range dramatically from a major metropolitan area and a moderately sized city with a service-industry base to a Rust Belt community and a small rural town.

Some 7,000 additional students have completed questionnaires about their career aspirations and knowledge and their communities, schools, families, and friends. The oldest subjects in the study are now 22. The researchers hope to follow them at least through age 30 as they make their transition into the world of work. The goal is to learn how young peoples' ideas about work are shaped and change over time.

Most young Americans, the researchers discovered, have a pretty rosy view of the future. They expect to have high-status jobs that pay a lot. And about one in three anticipates a professional career. Another 10 percent think they will land a job in the sports or entertainment industries.

"Our kids' aspirations, overall, represent a considerably more potent, better-rewarded-economically, higher-statusset of occupations than probably these kids are going to enter,'' says Charles Bidwell, one of the study's four principal investigators. The others are Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a noted author and professor of psychology; Larry Hedges, a professor of education; and senior social scientist Barbara Schneider. All are at the University of Chicago.

"If you look at the occupational aspirations of high school students,'' Bidwell continues, "and you overlay [them] on either the current distribution of occupations in the United States or on what you would project given what we know about the economy, they do not map very well one onto the other.''

To say most adolescents have a particular career in mind is inaccurate. Careers is more like it. Most teenagers, the researchers found, are contemplating at least three or four careers simulta-neously. "Their view of the occupational world is very tentative; it's kind of hesitant,'' says Bidwell, who teaches education and sociology at the university. "Maybe I'll be an athlete, maybe I'll be a neurosurgeon, maybe I'll be a model--all in the same head, so to speak.''

Researcher Schneider remembers interviewing one young man close to the beginning of the study. "He told me he'd like to be an architect," she says, "and how much he'd like to build houses and how he envisioned what an architect was and what an architect did. And then he said, `But I also might be a dog trainer.' ''

This ambivalence about future career choices is coupled with scanty knowledge about what such jobs actually require. When researchers asked students for precise information about the fields they hoped to enter--such as the average income, education required, or prospects for job openings--few could answer.

The exception was a small minority of students engaged in internships. "These students were extraordinarily smart about things,'' observes Schneider, "perhaps even more so than many young adults.'' While schools play a role in helping students find such on-the-job experiences, Schneider says, it is not a very consistent one. Most programs are small in scale and have no systematic way to connect available openings with the students who could most benefit.

Years ago, young people's aspirations for the future were often tightly coupled to their parents' jobs, education levels, and incomes. If you were the son of a plumber, you expected to be a plumber. If your father owned a store, chances are you'd take over the family business. But the researchers found that this is no longer the case. Today's students harbor expectations that have little to do with their families' circumstances.

"There are a lot of young people now who are probably thinking about a more diverse set of possible futures for themselves than their counterparts 25 years ago would ever have envisioned,'' says Bidwell. He speculates that greater access to higher education may account, in part, for this broadening of horizons.

One group of young people who would have been prominent in such a study 25 years ago is missing from this one: young men and women who expect to go into the same well-paying, blue-collar jobs as their parents. "These kids are simply not there,'' Bidwell says. "They don't want to do it. It's not that the jobs have all dried up or that the opportunities have all dried up. They simply do not want to follow that particular track.''

In general, the researchers do not view students' ambivalence about careers as a problem. Most young people, they note, will enroll in college, where they can continue to make career choices. But what may be a problem, they believe, is that many young people are entering college with little sense of direction. Some may inadvertently limit their career options, beginning in high school, when they fail to take certain courses.

"The downside is that college is extraordinarily costly,'' notes Schneider. "Students have `x' amount of time in it. They do have to choose courses, and some courses are more tightly linked to certain kinds of occupations than others. So if we're talking about it from a cost-benefit perspective, this has a real liability.''

The study found that most high school guidance counselors advise students about college rather than careers. But the amount and kind of guidance they provide differs from place to place. The advice is largely shaped by the economic and social circumstances of the broader community. In one West Coast community with high levels of unemployment, schools steer students toward the nearby community college instead of the job market. Across the country, in a more affluent community with a vibrant economy, a disproportionate number of students are encouraged to enter the workforce directly after high school. And in a wealthy suburban enclave, the schools invest tremendous resources helping students gain access to competitive four-year college campuses.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that families play a strong role in adolescents' development and outlook. Teenagers from families that are both supportive and challenging feel more secure at school, have higher self-esteem, and report doing more homework. They also tend to view school-related activities as more relevant to their futures and get higher grades. Children whose families engage them in hands-on learning also have higher educational aspirations and clearer career interests.

"It's this combination of support and challenge that's so important,'' says Schneider. "Supportive in the sense that we think you're going to do well, you're a good person, and we think a lot of you. And challenging in the sense that this is a hard world, you've got to compete, and these are the challenges you're likely to face. It's families that generate that kind of social dynamic in the home that are associated with students who expect to go to college and expect to do well.''

The study also found that adolescent peer groups play a strong role in social development. Young people whose friends are more engaged in school are themselves more engaged in school and expect to go further in their educations. Similarly, teenagers whose friends know more about the world of work know more about the world of work themselves. But, as the researchers point out, adolescent friendships differ. While some teenagers spend much of their time in pairs, engaged in activity but little talk, others have a tight network of friends and spend hours enmeshed in discussion. These youngsters, the researchers say, spend more time talking about possible careers. Still, they are no more likely than other students to have specific occupational preferences in mind.

Adolescents recognize that school and school-related activities play an important role in their futures. But the students most aware of this connection are those who are academically challenged and engaged. Unfortunately many students told the researchers that they are bored and turned off by school.

This might suggest that efforts to more explicitly connect high school study and work would motivate more young people to learn. But the researchers are not advocates of school programs that prepare students for the workforce--so-called "school to work" programs--particularly those that do not require education beyond high school. What schools need to do, they argue, is provide better information about the knowledge and skills required for a broad range of occupations and work to integrate that information into the regular curriculum.

"There's a lot to be said for keeping this transition point relatively open,'' Charles Bidwell argues. "If the occupational structure is really as dynamic as we think it is, then to prepare kids narrowly for one particular occupation would seem to me to be counterproductive. What you want to prepare them for is adaptability.''

Vol. 08, Issue 03, Page 1-24

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