Young people’s aspirations for education, work, family and leisure

Young people’s aspirations for education, work, family and leisure

Paula McDonald

Queensland University of Technology, Australia

Barbara Pini

Curtin University, Australia

Janis Bailey

Griffith University, Australia

Robin Price

Queensland University of Technology, Australia



Young people are arguably facing more ‘complex and contested’ transitions to adulthood and an increasing array of ‘non-linear’ paths. Education and training have been extended, identity is increasingly shaped through leisure and consumerism and youth must navigate their life trajectories in highly individualised ways. The study utilises 819 short essays compiled by students aged 14–16 years from 19 schools in Australia. It examines how young people understand their own unique positions and the possibilities open to them through their aspirations and future orientations to employment and family life. These young people do not anticipate postponing work identities, but rather embrace post-school options such as gaining qualifications, work experience and achieving financial security. Boys expected a distant involvement in family life secondary to participation in paid work. In contrast, around half the girls simultaneously expected a future involving primary care-giving and an autonomous, independent career, suggesting attempts to remake gendered inequalities.



aspirations, employment, expectations of work and family, gender and work, leisure, transitions to adulthood, young worker, youth


This study asked young people to imagine themselves in their futures and look back to describe their ‘journey to adulthood’: their future employment, family life and leisure activities.

Some argue that young people’s paths to adulthood are more complex, contested and ‘non-linear’ that ever before. Structural changes to industrialised economies have changed job and career options, with the rise of the service sector and increased flexibility and insecurity in employment, while experience of adulthood and the things within it such as having children have changed too.

Among the most important structural changes is altered gender relations. The gender roles that predominated in the past, the woman at home caring and the man at work, are largely redundant. Women now work far more than they have in the past, while male breadwinners no longer dominate.

The participants in the research were born in the early 1990s and included 579 year 9 students (aged 13–14 years) and 313 year 11 students (aged 15–16 years). Of 819 narratives available for analysis. 64 percent were girls, 36 percent boys.


Traditional markers of adulthood have not been rejected or substantially modified by young people in the survey. Around half (N = 393; 48%) described imagined futures which included marriage, property ownership and/or family. Of these respondents, the majority (94%) cited traditional expectations of some combination of marriage, children and property ownership. Girls (52%) were more likely than boys (20%) to specifically suggest family size, the gender of future children and even their names.

Over one-third (35%) of the total sample – approximately equal numbers of boys and girls – referred to their future financial position; with only two exceptions that referred to limited incomes, students said they would achieve wealth and security. Usually the route to financial prosperity was via clever investing and/or successful careers. The ideas varied from wildly unrealistic to conservatively optimistic. While financial success was mostly achieved through employment, a few girls suggested they would achieve wealth by marrying wealthy men.

Around two-thirds (N = 571; 64%) of respondents indicated they intended to pursue at least one of almost 100 different future professions, careers or jobs. Some highly feminised or masculinised jobs were, as expected, exclusively or predominantly noted by girls/boys respectively such as (for girls) teachers, childcare workers, nurses and hairdressers/beauticians and (for boys) pilots and trade jobs such as mechanics, electricians and carpenters. However, while no boys indicated feminised occupations, 25 girls anticipated a desire to take up a stereotypically masculine job, such as defence force personnel, mining-related professions and engineers. There were few discernible differences in job expectations across geographic regions, except for doctors/surgeons and lawyers/barristers, which were identified almost exclusively by urban students.

Many young people were unrealistic about the finances resulting from their imagined future. References to financial security and even wealth were commonly cited alongside poorly-paid jobs and professions. The participants often referred to their future occupation as business owners. Indeed, of the 532 responses indicating an identifiable occupation, 75 (14%) suggested they would operate their own business. Young people also expected that high incomes would allow for leisure time, travel and child rearing, in stark contrast to the evidence that high income earners and the self-employed typically work very long hours.

Only five girls (0.01%) and no boys saw gender as potentially having an impact on their experiences in the workplace. One girl cited the benefits of paid maternity leave for maintaining employment continuity, while the other four girls indicated potential difficulties in male-dominated professions. However, girls believed they could easily overcome whatever hurdles arose.

The work revealed that the young people involved had a strong sense of their own choice. However, there is a tension between rhetoric which emphasises individual responsibility and the reality of available opportunities and imposed constraints. This tension may lead to increased frustration and the marginalisation of some groups, as well as deeper divisions between those whose opportunities align with dominant discourses and those whose experiences do not measure up to them.


Read full paper