Social Affairs

The reality gap: are young people’s aspirations really so far-fetched?

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A recent ONS survey has revealed that young people’s career trajectories are far removed from their aspirations. Conducted over a period of six years, the survey took a sample of 16-21-year-olds and asked them about their career and salary expectations. 

In 2017, six years after the original survey, a group of 22-29-year-olds were surveyed. The findings revealed a sharp divergence between aspiration and reality.

For example, just 1.4 % of the 22-29-year-olds surveyed had actually progressed to a career in the media or arts, despite nearly 12% of the 16-21-year-olds aspiring to this career path. The most common job for 22-29-year-olds was a sales assistant or cashier, despite this being nowhere near the top five aspirations of the group.

Another study supported these findings and showed that although half of 16-year-olds in 2015-16 expected to be earning £35,000 by the time they turned 30 if they had a degree, the average salary for a 30-year-old was £23,700. 

Although this gap between the expectations of young people and the reality they face could be seen as a huge oversight on their part, or a case of misplaced ambition, looking further into the study shows that the careers young people hoped to have and the salaries they hoped to earn were not simply desires for success or wealth. 

In fact, most young people’s priorities were not fixated around income. 71% of 16-21-year-olds thought that it was very important for their future career to be interesting. 60% placed great importance on job security, just 25% felt a high income was important, and a mere 12% placed an emphasis on having leisure time.

All things considered, it seems that the aspirations of the 16-21-year-olds surveyed were not motivated by unrealistic fantasies. Instead, it seems that underlying the hopes and dreams of these young people was a desire to be secure and fulfilled in what they do.

Charles Cotton, a senior reward and payment advisor at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, suggests that the solution to this gap between expectations and reality is to connect schools and HR professionals more closely. He believes that young people need to be informed of “what the world of work looks like and involves and what pay expectations they can get” and be helped to work out what careers they should pursue to meet the income they desire.

But what most young people seem to want is not an inflated income, but a secure and decent one. 

£23,700, the average income for a 30-year-old, may be above the living wage, but consider that age 30 is a time when many people will want to settle down and perhaps have children.

£23,700 may not go so very far when a family of four is estimated to need at least £40,800 a year. Not to mention the extra factor of parents who take time out of work to look after their children.

Indeed, the appeal of a secure and ample income is clear when we consider that we are living in a climate of financial insecurity.  The charity Shelter estimates that one in three families are a month’s pay away from homelessness. Consider the rise in zero-hours contracts, and the fact that the work most obviously available to many young people is insecure. 

People may be surviving and getting by, but they have no security blanket.

And while Charles Cotton seems to think that young people need proper direction if they are to have the luxury of a security blanket, isn’t it wrong that most jobs do not come with one? 

Yes, young people do need to be exposed to a wider range of career options, but aspirations for security should not be conflated with aspirations for material prosperity. And it seems that the way some people have interpreted this data is wrong. They think that it is young people’s perspectives that need to be adjusted, rather than the scope for living that many jobs provide.

Young people do need more opportunities to gain exposure to the different jobs out there. As Nick Chambers, chief executive of the Education and Employers careers charity, puts it, “you can’t be it if you can’t see it”. 

But we also need to show young people that ambition doesn’t have to be lofty, or grandiose. 

An over-emphasis is placed on continual material gain, on glitz and glamour. But these things are not what young people truly aspire to. Instead, young people’s desires are often cloaked under and falsely interpreted as greed or misplaced ambition. When, in fact, it is society as a whole and the insecurity of so many jobs that makes only a select few career paths seem aspirational. 

And this should not be the case. Because all strong societies need everyone. They place value on people who do the jobs that may not be most highly skilled but which are vital to sustain a quality of life. 

Shop assistants, cleaners, carers – these are sadly all underpaid and undervalued occupations in our society. But society could not function without them. 

So instead of directing children towards more lucrative career paths, maybe a bigger upheaval is needed so that the next generation is economically satisfied. Perhaps jobs that are under-appreciated need to be seen in a different light. And that can only happen when economic value – in the form of fair and secure wages – is placed upon them. 

Not only will society benefit, but we may make the reality gap a thing of the past.

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