Does it matter whether a seven-year-old wants to be a doctor, a road-sweeper or a fire-eater in a travelling circus?
Yes, in many cases it may do, according to researchers at the Institute of Education, University of London, who have analysed the career aspirations of more than 11,000 children taking part in the UK-wide Millennium Cohort Study.
Professor Eirini Flouri, the lead researcher, acknowledges that children’s aspirations become more realistic during their teenage years. Nevertheless, seven-year-olds’ responses to the question: “When you grow up, what would you like to be?” may also provide valuable insights into their emotional state and their ability to overcome difficult family circumstances, she believes.
She and her colleague, Constantina Panourgia, found that more ambitious children from poor backgrounds were less likely to have behaviour problems than equally disadvantaged seven-year-olds who had lower career aspirations.
“As children in primary school are still relatively young, their aspirations may reflect their sense of hope for the future,” says Professor Flouri, a specialist in developmental psychology. “Early aspirations may therefore be a very good indicator of a cluster of characteristics associated with resilience – or the lack of it – such as a self-perception of competence or a feeling of hopelessness.”
The study, which is believed to be the first of its kind, was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Its initial findings suggest that children in families below the poverty line are more likely to aspire to work in the public sector – as doctors, teachers or police officers – than those growing up in more advantaged circumstances.
The study also shows that most of the Millennium Cohort children, who were all born in 2000 or 2001, were very ambitious at age 7. Just over 80 per cent of them were hoping to be managers, professionals or associate professionals. Many boys and girls chose future occupations that are traditionally seen as “masculine” or “feminine”. However, girls are more likely than boys to dream of professional careers at seven – a pattern also found in research with adolescents.
“A third of all boys stated that they would like to be sports players, most of them footballers, when they grow up,” Professor Flouri says. “Working for the emergency services was also popular with boys – 12 per cent wanted to be policemen and almost 5 per cent firemen. Girls were more likely to aspire to be teachers (23 per cent), vets (12 per cent) and doctors (6 per cent).”
Although more girls said they wanted to be managers or professionals, their goals were more likely to involve helping or caring for people and animals. “By contrast, boys’ aspirations tended to reflect dreams of financial success or concerns about image, power or popularity,” the study points out.
The 12 most popular occupations with seven-year-olds were: teacher, scientist, hairdresser, sports player, fire fighter, police officer, artist, actor/entertainer, animal carer, vet, doctor and builder. Three-quarters of the children chose one of these jobs.
There were, however, small differences by UK country. Children in Northern Ireland were least likely to say they would like to be police officers or actors. Children in England were least likely to want to be hairdressers and most likely to say they would like to be doctors. Seven-year-olds in Scotland and Northern Ireland were most interested in becoming vets while children in Wales appeared least keen to become teachers.
Flouri, E. and Panourgia, C. (2012) Do primary school children’s career aspirations matter? The relationship between family poverty, career aspirations, and emotional and behavioural problems. CLS Working Paper 2012(5). London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
Flouri, E. and Moulton, V. (2012) APPENDIX Children’s career aspirations at age 7: Descriptive statistics. Appendix to CLS Working Paper 2012(5). London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
Flouri, E., Moulton, V. and Panourgia, C. (2012) MCS data note: Coding the aspriations of children at age 7. London: Centre for Longitudinal Studies.
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