Ambitious career aspirations: A balancing act between success and disappointment

Higher aspirations lead to higher achievements. At least, that is true in the context of educational and occupational aspirations, as shown by a new study co-authored by economist Dr. Reto Odermatt of the University of Basel. Unrealistically high aspirations as a teenager, however, can have a negative effect on well-being as an adult.

Over the last few years, social mobility between the generations has become an important topic in political discourse worldwide. Many possible factors that hinder children in moving further up the social ladder than their parents have already been investigated, such as financial resources, the educational system and genetics. Dr. Reto Odermatt (University of Basel) and Prof. Dr. Warn Lekfuangfu (Universidad Carlos III de Madrid) conducted a study to investigate the relevance of career aspirations in social mobility and later life satisfaction. The results have now been published in the journal European Economic Review.

Educational and occupational aspirations are important predictors of career success

The basis for the study is a dataset that follows the lives of over 17,000 people in the UK who were all born in the same week in 1958, and continues to collect data to this day. Among other things, the dataset gathers together information on each individual’s childhood environment, the professional and financial backgrounds of their parents, the participant’s abilities, their aspirations in their youth, their occupation and their well-being as an adult.

The authors of the study therefore know not only participants’ youthful career aspirations but also their circumstances and occupations later in life. “This database is unique. We don’t have anything like it available in Switzerland. And, although the UK has its own idiosyncrasies, when this data is analyzed, the fundamental findings can also be applied to Switzerland,” says Odermatt.

The authors are using this database to investigate how the aspirations of children and young people affect their later life. How far did they get in their education? What was their actual labor market outcome, i.e. what was the job with the highest prestige that they held during their working life? They determined that the educational and career aspirations held by participants as teenagers were, along with cognitive skills, among the most important predictors overall for their later success in their education and careers. This indicates that ambitious career goals motivate people to invest more in their future career success.

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