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Teen career uncertainty mostly negative

Much has been made of the inadequacy of careers advice in schools. Regardless, some young people simply know what they want to do for a living earlier than others.

Erin, from Bondi in Sydney’s east, knew she wanted to be a preschool teacher from when she was 14. She worked diligently towards this goal, choosing senior year electives like Design & Technology that complemented it. Though she now dabbles in makeup artistry on the side, caring for toddlers remains her main gig.

Depending on which figures you use, Erin is in the slim majority. Many teens are unsure about their professional futures. 2006 PISA results showed a fifth of 15-year-old Australians didn’t know what job they would want when they were 30. Other studies suggest a third of adolescents feel this way, yet they tend to be overlooked by researchers.

Not ANU sociologist Joanna Sikora. She wanted to test the commonly-held belief that career uncertainty is positive, as young people can take time to figure out what they really want. So, using data from the Longitudinal Study of Australian Youth (LSAY), she analysed the extent to which uncertainty:

  1. persists from adolescence into young adulthood,
  2. affects the likelihood of obtaining a bachelor’s degree by age 26, and
  3. predicts expected lifetime earnings, based on occupation held at age 26.

Her findings were largely negative. In her words, they “support the view of occupational uncertainty as structurally conditioned and potentially detrimental lack of direction rather than purposeful role exploration with extended beneficial consequences.

“A tendency to lack vocational direction persists from adolescence into young adulthood.

“In line with arguments made in the USA, occupationally uncertain men and women seem to flounder in their educational and work-related pursuits and have weaker chances of securing early financial independence.”

On the latter point, Sikora found that an indecisive teen is 45 per cent more likely to be unemployed at age 23 than a certain one.

Occupational uncertainty was also found to lower expected lifetime earnings, and disproportionately affected youths from disadvantaged backgrounds.

But Sikora determined one “inconsequential” point: young people who have non-professional aims can be uncertain about these with little impact on their career or educational success at age 26. From this, she offered that for these people, ‘drifting’ is not necessarily harmful.

Yet for the majority of uncertain kids, the career trajectories of whom are windier than their forebears thanks to a combination of increasingly volatile economic conditions and a cultural shift toward delayed adulthood, it appears hazardous.

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