‘Uncertainty in educational and career aspirations: Gender differences in young people’

4 December 2015

Leslie Morrison Gutman, Ricardo Sabates & Ingrid Schoon.

In I. School & J.S. Eccles (eds). 2014. Gender Differences in Aspirations and Attainment: A Life Course Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 161-181.

The book is available here.


Changes within the global labour market have resulted in more complex and fractured career and education pathways and there are suggestions within academic literature that this has had negative implications on both the aspirations of young people regarding their future academic and career possibilities and in terms of the certainty with which they view their aspirations to be realistic and achievable. Despite a recognition by researchers that young people are showing higher levels of uncertainty concerning their education and career development, relatively little attention has been given to teenagers with such uncertain aspirations. This book chapter aims to strengthen this area of research by specifically examining the role of gender in aspiration formation and levels of uncertainty over time.

The chapter draws upon data from two UK studies: the 1970 British Cohort Study (BCS70) and the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE) following young people born in 1989/90. Both studies explore young people’s career aspirations and levels of certainty about their future intentions. Questions, however, were asked of young people in different ways across the two studies and so cannot be directly compared. The BCS70 collected data from 16,000 individuals born in a single week in 1970, following them from birth to adulthood. Questions relating to aspirations were asked when individuals reached the age of 16. LSYPE is a representative sample study of 21,000 people born between 1st of September 1989 and August 31st 1990, following them from the age of 13/14. This study uses data collected from ages 13/14 and 17/18 to assess aspirations.

The authors focus on two research questions: (1) what background characteristics are associated with uncertainty in educational and occupational aspirations, and do these differ by gender and period?, and (2) do young men and women with uncertain aspirations have a greater likelihood of becoming NEET relative to those who hold aspirations which are both certain and high? Has this association, moreover, changed over time? The authors specifically estimated the likelihood of being uncertain relative to being certain with high aspirations – using a logit model to predict uncertainty levels. The study only considered young people with high aspirations as a point of comparison across groups. These young people were identified by those who hoped to continue in education and those who were hoping to pursue a professional or managerial career.

The authors situate the research questions within literature regarding aspirations, which suggests that demographics and social factors play vital roles in forming young people’s aspiration levels. In particular, they highlight family socio-economic status, parental expectations, prior attainment levels, school motivation and perceived ability, and access to career advice. The data analysis models in this study used background factors as control variables and models examined individually for both males and females.

Across both data sets young males were more uncertain than females regarding both their career and educational aspirations. Findings report that both cohorts demonstrate the importance of personal academic beliefs and motivation relating to levels of certainty within aspiration levels. Generally, across both groups there was a positive correlation between higher levels of teenage uncertainty and the later likelihood of becoming NEET for both males and females. NEET is defined as a period of 6 total months outside of work, education, or training between the ages of 16 and 18. Within the LSYPE group this translated into a likelihood of more males becoming NEET.

Career advice correlated with lower levels of uncertainty for females among the LSYPE study; girls who responded that career advice had been ‘useful’ were less likely to report that they were uncertain in their career aspirations. The lack of a similar significance for males in the LSYPE study and both males and females in the BCS70 study implies that career guidance needs to be more appropriate and personalised for young people who are uncertain about pursuing an academic career. Career education may have a role in raising certainty levels in aspirations and could overcome cultural and gender-specific stereotypes.

The results of both cohorts suggest that there are many inter-linking factors that combine when students are required to make decisions about their careers and education pathways. Socio-economic contexts and individual demographics are crucial in the amount of resources available to young people and can impact their levels of certainty. Important resources identified in this chapter include: academic attainment, school motivation and belief in one’s own abilities. It is reported here that higher levels of such resources result in greater chances of certainty among young people’s education and career aspirations.

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