Balancing Aspirations – responding to the International Labour Organisation report

Richard Barrett, Education and Employers Research Associate and freelance education consultant

Youth Aspirations and the Future of Work – A Review of the Literature and Evidence1, from the International Labour Organization (ILO) adds more empirical evidence to support what many of us have long understood:  education and employer engagement can have a positive impact on student aspiration.  Well supported realistic aspirations, the paper argues, can improve motivation and better outcomes for young people. This blog summarizes some key findings combined with personal views developed though teaching, researching and consulting in the UK Asia and Africa. 

It is good to see the positive endorsement for using role models in schools and the paper correctly points out that a holistic approach is needed.  This should include role models in combination with skills development and other career support interventions (e.g. financing schemes). ‘Programmes that provide experiential information on how to integrate into the labour market, and have a financial scheme to aid in this, are more likely to elicit a positive response from its target population, as it helps visualize the different ways in which financial resources can be put to good use.’2

Aspirations are defined in the paper as forward-looking behaviour that capture the personal desires of individuals (preferences and goals), their beliefs about the opportunities available to them in society (opportunities and pathways) and their expectations about what can be achieved through their own effort.  The authors use this definition to address the issue of the ‘aspiration gap’.  That is, the distance between where you are and where you want to go. How great this distance is, the “aspiration gap”, determines whether aspirations can be a genuine motivator for individual change.  Aspirations that are either too low or too high will yield limited action, and therefore limited change. Reasonable aspirations will motivate effort and produce action leading to change.  The challenge for policy makers and practitioners then is to develop policies and programmes that help recipients visualize the potential pathways to achieving their goals.   Done correctly these can mobilize the motivating power of aspirations. Developing and maintaining self-identity is a relevant consideration that was not touched on in this discussion about shaping the aspiration gap.

My research into the school leaving decisions of white working-class boys convinced me that protecting a self-identity intrinsically linked to career choices can inhibit a young person in adjusting aspirations to reflect their growing understanding of labour market realities.  This implies, to me, that young people need access to individuals who understand the psychology of aspirations and goal setting.   These individuals should be able to apply practical tools and techniques that help young people progress to achieve their goals.  Probably easier said than done these days when professionals are increasingly having to ‘teach to the test’.  The individuals I have seen having most success improving aspiration in schools and colleges avoid labelling students, deal with them as individuals and coach students to reflect on the implications of their potential decisions and act accordingly.

The authors identify three key developmental elements.  First, individuals need to set a goal for the future (an aspired position). Second, they need to have the necessary agency to carry out the steps required to attain that goal. Third, they need to visualize pathways to achieving that goal, such as access to the cognitive or material tools necessary for their journey.  I take this to mean that young people need access to personal support and material resources to enable progress to their goal.  The report proceeds to expand on what these elements require – check it out.

The authors cite a variety of research indicating that exposure to people outside of young people’s immediate social network has a positive impact on aspiration formation.  They remind us that role models have to be people with whom individuals ‘can identify socially and whose stories produce a vicarious experience that generates emotions strong enough to spur a willingness in us to change our status quo.’  At least one element of the findings encourages policy-makers and educators to start raising students’ aspirations as early as primary school level and the findings were clear that carrying this on into adolescence and beyond was important.  I take this to mean that professionalised careers advice and guidance is critical – it is enhanced by work experience and strengthened by early interventions like Primary Futures and those for older pupils such as Inspiring the Future which provide the external variety and role model stimulation to aspiration.

Given how early on young people’s attitudes and aspirations are formed, insight from the Global Shapers Survey, quoted by the researchers is interesting.  The survey targets young people (aged 18–35) and covers 191 countries with 24,766 respondents.  The researchers asked “What are your most important criteria when considering job opportunities?” and “What are your biggest concerns about your job prospects when you apply for a new job?” Because the research demonstrates that attitudes reflected in answers from this age group are formulated well before the age of 18 it is worth examining the responses  and considering global similarities and differences

  • ‘Asia, salary and financial compensation is ranked first by young women in this region, whereas growth and career advancement ranked top for young men;
  • Europe and Central Asia in contrast to every other region in the world, youth did not rank salary and financial compensation as the most important criterion for a job. More young women identified sense of purpose and impact on society together with work–life balance as being more important than salary and financial compensation when considering a job. More young men chose salary and compensation, but sense of purpose and impact on society ranked second;
  • North America, similarly to Europe, more young women than young men nominated sense of purpose and impact on society as important to them, but in North America a greater proportion of young women cited flexibility and autonomy as important.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean, salary and financial compensation and growth and career advancement topped the chart for young women and young men alike, but greater proportions of women chose sense of purpose and impact on society and flexibility as of importance;
  • Middle East and North Africa, while salary and financial compensation and growth and career advancement ranked top for both young women and young men, a larger proportion of women valued a work–life balance;
  • Sub-Saharan Africa, a large proportion of young men cited training and development as the most crucial criteria when considering job opportunities and discrimination by employers as a major concern, while women cited “sense of purpose” as the third most desired job characteristic.’ 3

After an interesting discussion on non-standard employment and the gig economy, the report finishes with a comprehensive Appendix.  It contains details of all the surveys used in the study, dates, sample sizes and many of the questions used.  This is surely of interest to researchers or students, particularly as it also includes a comprehensive bibliography.

Simply put, aspiration improves motivation and motivation leads to success, including improved test scores and social mobility.  As ever with these things, it remains to be seen how far policy makers and funders will recognize this and support the non-didactic approaches to motivation and learning that this research indicates can help drive achievement and personal success.

1Gardiner, D., Goedhuys, M. 2020. Youth Aspirations and the Future of Work: A Review of the Literature and Evidence, ILO Working Paper 8 (Geneva, ILO).

2Ibid page 39

3Ibid pages 23-24