What do you want to be when you grow up? How children develop aspirations and why it’s important to know

By Nathan Berger

We ask this question of children almost as soon as they can speak: What do you want to be when you grow up? We were all asked this question many times during our childhood and adolescence. Those enquiring after our hopes and dreams were parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, and family friends. Often our responses were fantastical, even comical. My mother takes great delight in recalling that my earliest aspiration was to be Thomas the Tank Engine, or perhaps more realistically, the driver of an ice cream van. Transmogrification into an anthropomorphic steam train turned out to be impossible. Neither did I become a mobile soft-serve vendor. In any case, I doubt my four-year-old self would have replied to the question with “academic” let alone “postdoctoral research fellow”!

My own shifting story of what I wanted to be and what I eventually became is very much a product of the prevailing social, cultural, historical, and economic circumstances of my childhood. The simplicity of “what do you want to be?” belies the complex and multifaceted picture which emerges from any study of aspirations.

Why we need to know how aspirations develop in Australian children

Since 2009, Australian governments and educational institutions have focused on enabling access to university for students from historically underrepresented groups, particularly those from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. This has been our society’s aspiration for young people. However, only 15-16% of students from the lowest SES quartile undertake degree-level education in Australia. To address the underrepresentation in higher education of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, policymakers, educators, and researchers need a greater understanding of how career and education aspirations become differentiated by SES background during childhood and adolescence. Several scholars in Australia and elsewhere have analysed the aspirations policy agenda from various perspectives.

What research tells us so far

An emerging area of social psychological research seeks to explore how social identity styles differ according to social class background. Social psychologists Michael Kraus and Nicole Stephens argued that the economic, social, and material conditions of a social class socialise its members into similar intrapsychic and interpersonal patterns.

Same or different

They also proposed two broad distinctions. In this psychological theory of social class people in lower socioeconomic strata are said to have contextualistic social-cognitive tendencies: that is, a reliance on others for economic, social, and material support leads them to make decisions that favour similarity to others. They like being the same as other people.

On the other hand, people in higher social classes have a solipsistic social-cognitive tendency, which is an “individualistic orientation to the environment motivated by internal states, goals, and emotions” that leads them to make decisions that favour differentiation from others. They like to be different.

Living up to expectations

In other research the Professor of Psychology at the State University of New York, Michael Berzonsky, operationalised three identity styles which may be mapped to these broad distinctions: informational, normative, and diffuse/avoidant.

  • Students with an information-oriented identity style gather and evaluate information regarding career and education aspirations, with the desire to differentiate themselves from other people.
  • Students with a normative identity style are said to be conformists concerned with living up to the opinions and desires of significant others, like parents and friends.
  • Finally, students with a diffuse/avoidant social cognitive style delay dealing with identity questions, and rely on other people to make career and education decisions for them.

The difference between a normative and a diffuse/avoidant reliance on other people is that the former is an active orientation while the latter is rather more passive.

What I researched

In my doctoral thesis I sought to test these ideas in the Australian context and see whether there was a relationship to students’ career aspirations. As part of a larger study at the University of Newcastle, led by Professor Jenny Gore, I was able to analyse several thousand questionnaires gathered from children in Years 3-12 (find more about that here). I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to add Berzonsky’s identity style index to the student surveys in the third year of the study.

What I found

Family background is important to aspirations

As hypothesised, the results showed students’ identity styles to differ between socioeconomic status backgrounds. In general, students from high SES backgrounds were more information-oriented and less diffuse/avoidant when dealing with identity questions compared to students from low SES backgrounds, where the opposite pattern emerged. In some ways, these results parallel other research in which people from disadvantaged backgrounds are said to have tour knowledge, whereby they are limited to the guidance of others along a pre-determined path to desired occupational destinations, while people from advantaged backgrounds have map knowledge, or a “greater familiarity with the social terrain and an appreciation of the whole route they need to reach their destination”.

The expectations of family and friends can influence aspirations of some students, regardless of background

There were no statistically-significant differences between SES groupings for the normative, or conformist, identity style. While initially surprising this makes sense considering that all SES contexts have norms to which people generally subscribe (voluntarily or otherwise) even if those norms are qualitatively different from one context to another.

Students with low aspirations, regardless of background, rely on others to make career decisions for them

Perhaps most interestingly, identity styles also differed between students with high and low aspirations within SES groupings. Students from low SES backgrounds with high aspirations (as measured by the AUSEI06 socioeconomic ranking of occupations) were more information-oriented and less diffuse/avoidant than their peers with low aspirations. Similarly, students from high SES backgrounds with low aspirations had stronger diffuse/avoidant tendencies than their high aspiring peers.

So while different social cognitive tendencies are generally unevenly distributed between social-structural positions, supporting the hypothesised broad distinctions between social classes, they are not restricted to a particular social class. In other words, social cognitive orientations towards career aspirations are not fixed psychological constructs determined by social class. To repurpose a well-worn phrase, demography is not destiny.

How my research could be used

I think an important implication of this study is that to improve access rates to university, there is a need for careers education to better explore students’ desires and interests and to help students make informed decisions in line with their developing identities. It would appear that equipping students with the skills and dispositions to become information-gatherers would particularly benefit their career aspirations, regardless of their SES background.

Having said that, as Australian educational researchers Natal’ya Galliott and Linda J. Graham argue, “more equitable access to career education and guidance […] will not solve problems stemming from academic difficulty, a lack of curricular diversity, or student engagement”.

Therein lays the challenge to educators. While demography is not destiny, neither are aspirations. They are just one piece of a complex and multifaceted puzzle that goes together to create an individual in a society.

In my case, it might just be a puzzle of a blue steam train.



Nathan Berger is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Centre for Educational Research at Western Sydney University, and Co-Convenor of the AARE Motivation & Learning SIG. He recently graduated from the University of Newcastle with a PhD in the social psychology of education. His thesis was supervised by Prof Kathryn Holmes, Dr Jennifer Archer, and Prof Jenny Gore.

One thought on “What do you want to be when you grow up? How children develop aspirations and why it’s important to know

  1. Anthea Dempster says:

    As a child from a low socioeconomic background in the U.K. I remember deciding early (about 8 years old that I wanted to become a teacher. I know now that I was the first in a family of coal miners to express such an ambition. I remember that it was not taken seriously by my family who never attended anything at Primary or Secondary school. Indeed my mother suggested I leave school and apply for a vacancy at the village shop when I was in year 10. Fortunately I discovered I might be eligible for a parental means tested Government grant for the whole of my teacher training and that ensured that my dream came true. Even though the grant barely adequate I was able to find holiday employment to supplement this during my training. The other stroke of luck was that I was in the top academic stream of the secondary school I attended and my peers became my friends and we shared the same academic interests. To this day I believe this series of lucky breaks enabled me to achieve my dreams. Incidentally I eventually became a Master Teacher and later a Teacher Trainer.
    What I would like to see is more counselling and support for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds who show ability and more financial assistance in their education.

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