Job study: Kids should shoot for the moon, but most may never land their dream job

HOUSTON, Texas — Dreams jobs from childhood are something most American adults can probably remember to this very day. Whether they were hoping to be an astronaut, a doctor, or a famous athlete, it’s safe to say most kids start out by setting their sights pretty high. A new study finds while it’s great for children to have big career dreams, it’s important to realize very few will actually reach their goal.

“Almost 50% of adolescents aspired to investigative or artistic careers, which together account for only 8% of the U.S. labor market,” reports Kevin Hoff, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Houston, in a release.

Hoff examined the career aspirations of 3,367 adolescents between 13 and 18 years-old across 42 states. “Investigative” jobs include those in the field of science and research. Hoff’s research concludes it’s best for kids to shoot for the moon, but have a backup plan so they can “land in the stars.”

“Results revealed that most adolescents aspired to careers with low potential for automation. However, there were large discrepancies between adolescents’ aspirations and the number of jobs available in the labor market,” Hoff adds.

To reach these findings, the Houston team looked at the automation risk levels, educational requirements, and vocational interests of these childhood aspirations.

Dreams change as kids get older

The study finds young girls most commonly aspired to be doctors, veterinarians, teachers, and nurses. Specifically, being a doctor was the most popular choice, accounting for 12 percent of all dream jobs among girls 13 to 15. However, the title of most popular dream job shifted to veterinarians, teachers, and nurses when the young women were between 16 and 18 years-old.

For boys, becoming a pro athlete was the overwhelming choice for 13 to 15-year-olds (22% to 33%, respectively). This dropped off significantly once boys reached their late teens, accounting for just five to 13 percent of boyhood dreams.

“Both males and females showed a similar pattern of increasing variability in their career aspirations with age, indicating more diverse career goals,” Hoff explains.

Seeing more jobs will help give kids more career ideas

Study authors say part of this has to do with reality setting in as older children begin to realize what they can and can’t realistically do. The team notes one of the most important ways to help kids find ambitious-but-still-attainable careers is by exposing them to range of jobs they wouldn’t normally see in their daily lives.

“Young girls often want to become teachers because that is what they see every day,” Hoff continues. “It’s equally important to show them that other occupations exist, especially lesser-known careers with growing employment demands, such as those in the STEM fields.”

Although it’s great to have big, ambitious dreams, the Houston team notes teachers often struggle to help guide students who have mediocre grades reach these goals.

“Adolescents who want to become doctors may end up with a really good job doing something else in the medical field, and that’s a positive outcome. The negatives are they might end up working toward an unattainable career, pursuing education that’s a bad fit in interest or ability,” the assistant professor says.

Dream jobs in the post-pandemic world

Study authors note there’s little research on how the career goals of youngsters line up with their future work. They add it could be more important than ever as the job market changes, with more people working from home after COVID-19.

“This kind of career development research can make a positive impact in helping individuals and societies prepare for the future of work,” Hoff concludes. “It’s good to encourage students to have prestigious careers, but as they get older, parents, teachers or counselors should also be real with them and help them understand how many people actually work in their dream fields, and how likely it is they will get a job in that field.”

One key thing for parents to explain to their children who want to pursue jobs in the arts: only two percent of all Americans have a career in that field.

The study appears in the Journal of Career Assessment.

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