Occupational choice, socio-economic status and educational attainment

Occupational choice, socio-economic status and educational attainment: a study of the occupational choices and destinations of young people in the British Household Panel Survey

Paul Croll (2008) Occupational choice, socio‐economic status and educational attainment: a study of the occupational choices and destinations of young people
in the British Household Panel Survey, Research Papers in Education, 23:3, 243-268, DOI:

Abstract The article considers young people’s occupational choices at the age of 15 in relation to their educational attainment, the occupations of their parents and their actual occupations when they are in their early 20s. It uses data from the British Household Panel Survey over periods of between five and ten years. The young people in the survey are occupationally ambitious: many more aspire to professional, managerial and technical jobs than the likely availability of these occupations. In general ambitions and educational attainment and intentions are well aligned but there are also many instances of misalignment; either people wanting jobs which their educational attainments and intentions will not prepare them for, or people with less ambitious aspirations than their educational performance would justify. Children from more occupationally advantaged families are more ambitious, achieve better educationally and have better occupational outcomes than other children. However, where young people are both ambitious and educationally successful the occupational outcomes are as good for those from disadvantaged as advantaged families. In contrast, where young people are neither ambitious nor educationally successful, the outcomes for those from disadvantaged homes are very much poorer than for other young people. The article suggests that while choice is real it is also heavily constrained for many people. A possible educational implication of the study is that career interventions could be directed at under-ambitious but academically capable young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Keywords: occupational choice; social reproduction; educational attainment; British Household Panel Survey

A key area of study in the sociology of education in the UK is socioeconomic status, and why it is reproduced across generations. This is often, and obviously, seen in the similarities of occasions of parents and children.

In the second half of the 20th century the UK saw a significant increase in the proportion of the population working in professional and managerial occupations. But while there has been a large increase in absolute mobility, relative mobility has remained largely the same. The patterns are well known, but not the processes that cause them. In particular, the process of choices about occupational destinations has received much less attention.

This study uses data from the British Household Panel Survey. Data from the (then) most recently available round of interviewing (2004) contained interviews with young people who were first interviewed as children during the 1990s. The analysis in the paper therefore relates to 763 young people interviewed at the age of 15 between 1994 and 1999 and to 528 of these young people interviewed in 2004 when they were aged from 20 to 25. These data include young people’s career choices at the age of 15, occupational or educational outcomes immediately post-16, the occupational and characteristics of their parents when the young people were 15 and the young people’s occupations and educational qualifications in 2004, between five and ten years after they were originally interviewed.


  • Most young people were able to give occupational intentions at the age of 15. Almost four-fifths of the sample provided an occupation they would like in response to the question.
  • Respondents were relatively ambitious in the sense that many aspired to desirable and well-rewarded jobs.
  • Over two-thirds chose non-manual occupations and most of these, almost six out of ten of all young people making a choice, chose professional, managerial or technical occupations.
  • ‘Managerial and technical’ was the largest single category, accounting for 44% of responses, while a further 14% chose professional occupations. Of the just under a third of young people choosing manual occupations, the great majority were planning jobs as skilled manual workers. Only 3.5% of the sample aspired to jobs in partly skilled or unskilled manual work.
  • Male and female respondents aspired to broadly similar occupations in terms of the socioeconomic classification. The majority of the occupational choices of both were for non-manual occupations and virtually identical proportions of male and female respondents chose professional occupations.
  • Males and females also had virtually identically low rates of choosing partly skilled or unskilled manual occupations. Categories where there were gender differences are ‘managerial and technical’, with more female choices, and ‘skilled manual’, with more male choices. The latter, in particular, reflects the traditional occupational structure in the United Kingdom where skilled manual work has been mainly a male preserve.
  • The young people were ambitious both in absolute terms and in relation to the occupational structure of the workforce. This is particularly apparent at the extremes of the occupational distribution.

While 14% of young people wanted professional jobs, only 5% of the population as a whole had such jobs in the late 1990s. And while 3.5% of young people planned to go into partly skilled or unskilled occupations, 22% of those in the adult sample were in such occupations. Overall, professional occupations, managerial and technical occupations and skilled manual work were oversubscribed compared with the distribution of actual occupations, while skilled non-manual work and partly skilled and unskilled manual work were heavily under-subscribed. The results show that this mismatch is not just an issue of preferences for non-manual over manual work compared with the availability of such jobs, although this is certainly the case. It also reflects a preference within manual occupations for skilled work and within non-manual occupations for professional and managerial posts.

The results show most young people were fairly ambitious in that they aspired to professional and managerial rather than manual occupations, especially partly skilled or unskilled manual occupations. These aspirations are broadly in line with changing occupational structure of recent decades. But many more people chose professional and managerial jobs than those available, either at the time or in the future.

The data presented here go a long way in explaining why socioeconomic status is reproduced across generations – children aspire to jobs similar to those their parents have. Children from the most advantaged parents were particularly likely to aspire to such occupations for themselves and were particularly unlikely to want to go into manual work. In contrast, many children of parents in manual occupations aspired to those jobs themselves.

But well over half of the children of parents in manual occupations said that they wanted to go into non-manual work and the great majority of these wanted to go into professional, managerial and technical jobs. It is also the case that one in six of the children from professional, managerial and technical families and over a third of those in skilled non-manual families were planning to go into manual jobs.

The evidence presented here has shown that young people in Great Britain in the late 1990s had relatively high occupational ambitions and that more of them aspired to more desirable and well-rewarded occupations than the likely availability of such occupations. In terms of the broad socio-economic categories of occupations, young women and young men were equally ambitious. However, in certain specific types of occupation, such as traditional forms of skilled manual work and childcare, strong gender stereotyping of occupational choice was found.

While a majority of young people had educational intentions and attainments which matched their career ambitions, for a significant minority there was a misalignment between education and career. This was mainly a case of not planning or attaining the education necessary for the jobs they wanted, but included young people who were better qualified than their ambitions required.

The results also show aspects of the way that access to more advantaged socio-economic locations are transmitted across generations and the interplay of choice and educational behaviour and attainment in this process. The children of parents in less advantaged locations were ambitious, but less so than the children of parents in more advantaged locations. Moreover, the educational qualifications and participation of the ambitious children of less advantaged parents made it less likely that they would be able to realise their ambitions.

Early choices, educational attainment and parental occupational background were all associated with occupational outcomes. People were more likely to achieve desirable occupational outcomes if they had chosen them at 15, if they had achieved good GCSE results and if their parents had such occupations. The results showed that the distribution of ambitions and attainment varied with parental background in a way that reinforced occupational advantage and disadvantage. However, ambitious and educationally successful young people from less advantaged backgrounds were just as likely to achieve occupational success as those from more advantaged backgrounds. In contrast, young people from less advantaged backgrounds who were neither ambitious at 15 nor educationally successful were very unlikely to achieve occupational success; but young people from advantaged backgrounds with the same level of ambition and achievement had, in a substantial minority of cases, obtained desirable jobs.

For young people from all backgrounds, having ambitious educational aims and, at the same time, performing well in examinations was strongly associated with better occupational outcomes. This is true of young people from manual occupational backgrounds just as much as for children from professional, managerial and technical backgrounds. But for children from less advantaged families choice is both more heavily constrained by attainment, and unambitious choices are particularly likely to result in unambitious outcomes. Of those making unambitious choices at 15, those from manual occupational backgrounds were very unlikely to end up in PMT occupations, while for those from PMT families many more were likely to do so.

For those who are educationally successful, ambitious choices are likely to lead to outcomes consistent with these choices whatever their family background. But for those who are less successful educationally, or do not have ambitious occupational aims, choices can have consequences much more influenced by their families’ structural locations. In particular, young people from manual occupational backgrounds are more likely to make unambitious choices and are then more likely to see these choices turn into less attractive outcomes. At the same time, the educational and social resources available to families in more advantaged occupational positions mediate the influence of the choices their children make for their futures.

If schools and other services for young people can help academically able young people from less advantaged backgrounds to better align their attainments and ambitions, then it may be possible to attain a more equitable socio-economic distribution of occupational success.

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