Socioeconomic status and the career aspirations of Australian school students: Testing enduring assumptions

Jennifer Gore, Kathryn Holmes, Max Smith, Erica Southgate, Jim Albright

Published online: 14 March 2015


Recent Australian government targets for higher education participation have produced a flurry of activity focused on raising the aspirations of students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. In this paper we test two key assumptions underpinning much of this activity: that students from low-SES backgrounds hold lower career aspirations; and that outreach activities appropriately target secondary school students, given that younger students’ aspirations are relatively under-developed. Drawing on a sample of 3,504 students, we map the intersection of the career aspirations of students in Years 4, 6, 8, and 10 with SES and other demographic variables in order to contribute to the evidence base for academic, educational, and political work on access to higher education and the policies, practices, and outcomes that might ensue. Aspirations are assessed in terms of occupational certainty, occupational choice, occupational prestige, and occupational justification. We found fewer differences by year level and by SES than expected. Our analyses demonstrate both the complexity of students’ career aspirations and some of the challenges associated with undertaking this kind of research, thus signalling the need for caution in the development of policy and interventions in this field.

Keywords Equity, Higher education, Aspirations, Educational aspirations, Career aspirations, Socioeconomic status


Government policies and university outreach activities that target students from low-SES backgrounds, often framed in terms of ‘raising’ aspirations, are based on the assumption that these students have lower aspirations than their higher SES peers. It is true that low-SES students are under-represented in universities, but to what extent is this explained by differences in aspirations? Relatively little is known about how career aspirations intersect with SES and other markers of social difference, especially across the years of schooling and across all SES categories.


The paper uses data drawn from a four-year longitudinal study, Educational and Career Aspirations in the Middle Years of Schooling: Understanding Complexity for Increased Equity. Purposeful sampling was used.

The paper set out to investigate different aspects of aspirations.

  • The degree to which students expressed firm occupational or career goals.
  • A measure of occupational prestige.
  • The specific occupational choices made by students and their reasons or justifications

Occupational Certainty

Students were asked in the survey if they knew what kind of work they wanted to do when they grew up. If they answered ‘yes’, they were then asked to name the kind of work (in an open-ended question) and their reasons for choosing it. If they answered ‘no’, they were asked for some of the kinds of work or specific jobs they had thought about doing (if any). The students were then categorised into three groups based on certainty about their future occupation: those who expressed a definite idea of a future career; those who expressed a tentative idea for a future career; and those who expressed no specific career interest.

Occupational Prestige

Where students provided either a definite or tentative occupation, their open-ended responses were coded according to the Australian and New Zealand Standard Classification of Occupations (ANZSCO). The ANZSCO codes were then converted into the Australian Socioeconomic Index 2006 (AUSEI06), which is an occupational status scale ranging from 0 (the lowest status) to 100 (the highest status).

Aspirations coded in the first third of the scale encompass non-skilled and semi-skilled occupations such as labourers, sales assistants, receptionists, and hairdressers. Those coded in the second-third of the scale represent skilled and paraprofessional occupations like tradespersons, police officers, and human resource officers. Finally, those coded in the top-third include professional occupations such as teachers, lawyers, accountants, and medical practitioners. Students were categorised as low, middle, or high aspiring, based on the thirds identified above.

Occupational Justification

Textual responses to the question ‘‘Why do you want to do this work?’’ were read individually and emerging themes were noted. Only those students who indicated certainty for a desired occupation (n = 2,474) were included in this analysis. Twenty themes were identified through the coding process. The five most prevalent themes formed the data for analysis of relationships between occupational justification and the demographic measures outlined below.


Occupational Certainty

Of the 3,504 students

  • 71% stated that they knew what kind of work they wanted to do and then stated a specific occupation (the ‘Certain’ job outcome)
  • 21% initially responded that they did not know what kind of work they wanted but provided a tentative occupation when prompted a second time (the ‘Tentative’ job outcome).
  • 8% responded that they did not know what job they aspired to and did not provide any tentative suggestions (the ‘Unformed’ job outcome).

Occupational Choice

The responses of the students who gave a Certain or Tentative job choice were collated. Across all student groupings, only 11 occupations were named among the five most highly ranked. Listed in prestige order from low to high (using AUSEI06), these were mechanic, animal trainer, defence force, sportsperson, police officer, entertainer, engineer, school teacher, psychologist, vet, and doctor. Sportsperson, teacher, and vet appeared among the top five occupations for nearly every student group, with the exceptions being that sportsperson was not ranked in the top five for girls (instead ranked 11th) and school teacher and vet were not in the top five for boys (ranked 7th and 11th respectively).

A small number of occupations were ranked in the top five for only a small number of student groups. These were mechanic (only popular with boys, low SES, and Year 10), defence force (only boys and Year 10), engineer (only boys and Year 8), psychologist (only Year 10) and doctor (only girls, high SES, and high achievement). There was no overlap in the top five occupations for boys when compared with girls’ top five occupational choices.

Occupational Justification

The occupational justifications written by students who provided a definite job aspiration were coded into categories with the five most prevalent themes, together with some examples. For each example, the student is identified by gender, school sector (primary/secondary), SES, prior achievement, and occupational prestige tertiles (low, mid, high). The top five justifications were

  1. The job is related to something that they like or love (32%):

I love art and I love the sea, I can’t stand to let animals die. I would like to study the ocean till my arms and legs can’t swim anymore. (female, primary, low SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

Because I love the human bones and i [sic] love crime so together it’s the perfect job. (female, secondary, mid SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

  1. They think they will be good at or are interested in that kind of work (16%):

This field of work [astronomy] has always interested me. I dream of working in this field of work. I believe that in this field of work I can show my full potential. (male, secondary, high SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

I want to do this because I enjoy having an education and I would love to help future kids with there [sic] future education. I have also got the academic award 2 years in a row so learning new stuff comes easy to me. (female, primary, mid SES, mid achievement, high aspiration)

  1. The job involves helping others in some way (14%):

I have always been interested in helping people, and being a doctor sounds like a really good job to have. (female, secondary, low SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

I would like to do this job to save animals’ lives. (female, primary, low SES, low achievement, high aspiration)

  1. They think the job would be fun, enjoyable, or exciting (13%):

Because engineering is something I enjoy, and I have a family history in the ADF4. (male, secondary, mid SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

  1. The job would earn them lots of money (8%):

I love computers and engineering is a good, high paying job. (male, secondary, mid SES, high achievement, high aspiration)

Students in the primary years more often reported ‘like or love’ as the reason for selecting their preferred occupation, as did students in the highest SES quartile and females. While less frequently reported overall, being ‘good at or interested in’ as the reason for selecting their job preference was more frequently chosen by secondary students, high SES students, and higher achieving students. ‘Altruism’ was more frequently reported by students in the middle-SES quartiles and considerably more often by female students. Year 10 students reported ‘fun or excitement’ as the reason for the job choice more frequently than younger students. While less frequently reported overall, ‘money’ was reported more frequently as the reason for selecting their preferred occupation by provincial students and lower SES students, and considerably more frequently by male students.

The study found that the aspirations of younger students were similar in many respects to those of older students. There was substantial commonality in the specific occupations favoured by younger and older students. The main difference between younger and older students was that primary school students were significantly less tentative about careers they might pursue than students in secondary school.

These findings raise questions about how to approach aspiration in schools. The data on occupational justifications suggest that the older students were drawing on the dominant discourses of career education that encourage students to ‘know’ themselves, to identify their strengths and interests, in order to find careers matched to their individual ‘capacities’.

Instead of the focus on selecting a career, the focus of career education could shift towards students’ reasons for wanting particular careers, which could then lead them to consider ways in which a range of careers might bring similar ‘payoffs’. For example, with the under-representation of girls in engineering, knowing that altruism underpins the occupational choices of a significant number of girls could mean exploring with girls the ways in which engineering helps people and communities, as one part of their occupational decision-making. The suggestion here is not so much fitting the individual to a narrow range of careers that suit their interests, but opening up the range of possible careers by exploring how those careers might fit the individual.

There are also useful insights on ‘fantasy’ aspirations. The data here counters the view that younger children’s career aspirations as based in fantasy, or are unrealistic, and therefore not taken seriously. Fantasy occupations have been defined as career choices based solely on interests and desires with no reference to ability, such as high-status jobs (doctor, lawyer, etc.) that require tertiary education, or jobs such as musician or sportsperson that may not be realistic in terms of children’s abilities. But who is to judge whether these career interests are ‘fantasies’, for whom, and at what point? Using a more literal notion of fantasy, of the occupations named by more than 3,000 students across the sample, only two students named careers that were ‘not real’ – ‘superhero’ and ‘king of the world’. From as early as 9 years old, the vast majority of students expressed interest in ‘real’ occupations. Most did so with a reasonable level of certainty (71% certain, or 92% tentative or certain) and mostly their career aspirations were classified as middle to high prestige.

In any case these data call into question a focus on ‘raising’ aspirations. It might be important to think about aspirations more broadly than just the prestige and educational attainment associated with a particular job. The data on occupational justifications suggests there would be value in considering the reasons expressed by students for their occupational choices in order to broaden the range of possible careers with potential for fulfilling their hopes, interests, and desires.

Beyond conventional understandings of SES and aspirations

Given the under-representation of students from low-SES backgrounds in universities and high prestige occupations that has underpinned equity policy it is particularly interesting to look at the interaction of SES with occupational certainty, prestige, choice, and justification.

The vast majority of students across all SES quartiles were interested in professional or skilled/paraprofessional occupations. Indeed, across the SES quartiles, vet, teacher, and sportsperson were consistently ranked among the top five occupations. The impact of SES was most apparent in the career choices of doctor, which only appeared in the top five for students from high-SES backgrounds, and mechanic, only in the top five for students from low-SES backgrounds.

SES also produced some significant differences in occupational justification, with high-SES students more often citing interest and passion as motivations behind their career choices and lower SES students more often citing money.

The differences by SES were relatively small, but that should not imply that SES is unimportant or that additional support is not needed for students from low-SES backgrounds.

The stronger financial motivation of students from low-SES backgrounds signals their hopes for occupational futures that provide financial security, while students from higher SES backgrounds appeared to feel that they have greater scope to pursue their interests and passions.

These results emphasise the importance of education in ensuring that a broad range of possibilities remains available to all students, including those from low-SES backgrounds. Knowing that achievement in schooling represents the cumulative histories of students’ prior achievement, as well as their lives outside school, these data demonstrate education’s critical role in overcoming rather than reproducing societal inequalities.


Read Socio-economic Status And Career Aspirations here.