Early Occupational Aspirations and Fractured Transitions: A Study of Entry into ‘NEET’ Status in the UK

A report in the Journal of Social Policy, October 2010 (Yates S, Harris A, Sabates, R. and Staff, J.)

This report summarises analysis of the British Youth Cohort Study, comprising data from over 17,000 individuals born in Britain in April 1970. Logistic regression is used to estimate the impact of aspirations, educational expectations and socio-economic status on future employment outcomes, particularly regarding the likelihood of falling into ‘NEET’ (not in education, employment or training) status.

Although the authors recognise the impossibility of concluding that all possible other influencing factors have been conditioned out, the results show significant support for the view that the “increased individualisation of the transition from school to work that gathered pace in the 1980s has been detrimental for those least well-equipped to negotiate the changes in the youth labour market.”

Drawing on research into the risk factors influencing the likelihood of becoming ‘NEET’, they cite the ability to navigate increasingly complex paths through education and training as a vital factor in securing stable employment. This transition is defined as ‘fractured’ when aspirations exceed educational expectations, thus here referred to as being ‘misaligned’. Asking respondents to state what type of career they intend for themselves, the authors found that 39% of young men and 41% of young women aspired to careers requiring higher educational qualifications than these young people were expected to achieve. 7% of men and 6% of women said that they ‘cannot decide’ what career they would like, and are referred to as having ‘uncertain aspirations’.

The key findings:

  • Compared to those with high and aligned ambitions and higher educational expectations than their aspired career, young men with mismatched aspirations and educational expectations were almost twice as likely to become NEET. Young women with misaligned ambitions were three times as likely to become NEET.
  • Young men and women with uncertain aspirations were roughly three times more likely to become NEET.
  • The authors cite other recent research suggesting that despite recent policy focus on improving career guidance, high numbers of young people still aspire to careers unmatched to their expected educational attainment.
  • The negative consequences of misaligned and uncertain aspirations are greater for those from lower socio-economic status (SES) backgrounds. Almost twice the proportion of people from lower SES backgrounds had misaligned aspirations compared to their high-SES counterparts (52%against28%), and were proportionally more likely to enter NEET status as a result.
  • This impact was not evident for young women, for whom early pregnancy was shown to have a far greater impact on the likelihood of becoming NEET (again, though, this is shown to be related to SES).

To counter young peoples’ alienation and uncertainty by raising their aspirations would seem to be a positive step, but where aspiration exceeds likely attainment, a more complex challenge for social policy-making emerges, as simply raising aspirations is not enough to guarantee adequate educational success to meet those aspirations.

Early Occupational Aspirations and Fractured Transitions: A Study of Entry into ‘NEET’ Status in the UK – full report