When I grow up I want to be… how career aspirations are narrowing

When I grow up I want to be…

Hop scotch on pavement

You might suppose that in today’s Insta world, where six of the seven largest companies are tech giants and Google has passed its 21st birthday, something digital, something tech, something 21st century might feature in the top career aspirations of today’s teenagers … but you’d be wrong.


According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development), traditional 20th century and even 19th century occupations such as doctors, teachers, vets, business managers, engineers and police officers continue to be the goals of young people, just as they were nearly 20 years ago – before the era of social media and acceleration of workplace technologies such as artificial intelligence. And despite the flowering of new industries, their career expectations are narrowing, not broadening.


The OECD findings come from its latest PISA (Programme for International Student Development) survey of 15-year-olds in 79 countries and regions. Discussing them at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, educationists, business leaders, teachers and school students raised concerns about the widening gap between what teenagers expect to do and the jobs that will be exist for them, questioning how well education is preparing them for the realities of employment opportunities.


OECD education director Andreas Schleicher said: “It is a concern that more young people than before appear to be picking their dream job from a small list of the most popular, traditional occupations, like teachers, lawyers or business managers. The surveys show that too many teenagers are ignoring or are unaware of new types of jobs that are emerging, particularly as a result of digitalisation”.


The report highlights frequent misalignment of students’ career aspirations with the education and qualifications required to achieve them, which raises fears that careers advice given in schools may be significantly out of date, with careers advisers perhaps unaware of the sorts of jobs that will become available or the qualifications and career pathways needed to reach them.


According to the OECD, “addressing this challenge requires ensuring effective systems of career guidance combined with a close engagement with the working world.”


Career aspirations also continue to show significant gender differences, according to the report. Among students who score highly in the PISA tests, it is overwhelmingly boys who more often expect to work in science and engineering, with the top ten occupations cited by boys having changed very little since 2000. Girls, by contrast, are now more likely to want to be architects, police officers or designers, rather than hairdressers, writers or secretaries.


The Education and Employers charity has called for a significant expansion of career-related learning in Britain, to address the disparity between aspiration and opportunity in the labour market, in both primary and secondary schools. It offers the stark warning that “Statistically there is ‘nothing in common’ between the career aspirations of young people and labour market demand.”


Addressing the challenges posed by the report requires a transformation in the career guidance on offer, and therefore the training of careers advisers, as well as much greater engagement with future employers throughout students’ school years.