What we may be able to learn from young children’s career dreams

14 September 2012

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.

Full papers

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.

Further information

David Budge
Institute of Education
University of London
020 7911 5349
07881 415362

Notes for Editors

  1. The Millennium Cohort Study has been following more than 19,000 children in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through their early childhood and plans to follow them into adulthood. It covers such diverse topics as parenting; childcare; school choice; child behaviour and cognitive development; child and parental health; parents’ employment and education; income; housing; and neighbourhood. Surveys of the cohort have been carried out at the ages of nine months, and three, five and seven years. The Millennium Cohort Study was commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council, whose funding has been supplemented by a consortium of government departments. It is managed by the Centre for Longitudinal Studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. More at www.cls.ioe.ac.uk/mcs
  2. The Millennium Cohort Study’s age 7 survey included a self-completion questionnaire, answered by 13,244 cohort children. This included the question on aspirations (“When you grow up, what would you like to be?”). Of these 13,244 children, 1,887 were discarded if the child’s response to the aspiration item was missing or was judged to be invalid. For 9,198 of these 11,357 children, there were complete data for emotional and behavioural difficulties at age 7. This number included children in the same family (for example, twins). Therefore, records for only one child per family were used – 9,074 in all.
  3. Children’s emotional and behavioural problems were gauged at age 7 by mothers’ responses to the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire. This questionnaire measures four domains of difficulties (hyperactivity, emotional symptoms, conduct problems and peer problems), as well as pro-social behaviour.
  4. The children’s career aspirations were measured by the UK Standard Occupational Classification 2000. This classifies occupations on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 indicating the highest level of occupational status and 9 the lowest, as follows: SOC1, Managers and senior officials; SOC2, Professional occupations; SOC3, Associate professional and technical occupations; SOC4, Administrative and secretarial occupations;SOC5, Skilled trades occupations; SOC6, Personal service occupations;SOC7, Sales and customer service occupations; SOC8, Process, plant and machine operatives; SOC9, Elementary occupations.
  5. The poverty line for equivalised net family income is set at 60 per cent of the UK national median household income. In all, 26 per cent of children in the researchers’ sample were living below the poverty line at age 7.
  6. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest organisation for funding research on economic and social issues. It supports independent, high quality research which has an impact on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC’s total budget for 2012-13 is £205 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and independent research institutes. More at www.esrc.ac.uk
  7. The Institute of Education is a college of the University of London that specialises in education and related areas of social science and professional practice. In the most recent Research Assessment Exercise two-thirds of the Institute’s research activity was judged to be internationally significant and over a third was judged to be “world leading”. The Institute was recognised by Ofsted in 2010 for its “high quality” initial teacher training programmes that inspire its students “to want to be outstanding teachers”. The IOE is a member of the 1994 Group, which brings together 15 internationally renowned, research-intensive universities. More at www.ioe.ac.uk

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