Adolescent career uncertainty

“What do you want to do when you finish school?”

It’s a common question put to adolescents. But what of the one in five Australian high schoolers who don’t have an answer?

While significant research has been done on the outcomes of students who can identify their future career goals, less attention has been paid to those who cannot.

Australian National University’s Dr Joanna Sikora is examining the outcomes of those students, in a new study in the Australian Journal of Education.

“Several arguments single out occupational expectations of adolescents as essential predictors of their later educational and occupational attainments,” writes Dr Sikora.

Drawing on ten years’ worth of evidence from the Longitudinal Survey of Australian Youth, Dr Sikora found that those who were unsure of their long-term career goals as adolescents were significantly less likely than their peers to have clear goals by the time they were young adults.

And for those who were still indecisive in young adulthood, that might mean a 6 per cent earnings penalty over their lifetime. “Young adults who are still unsure of their anticipated career path are less likely to complete university, and will likely earn less over their lifetime than their peers with clear goals,” said Dr Sikora.

“We might put that indecision down to a rapidly changing workforce, where career certainty isn’t what is was 20 or 30 years ago; or we might say ‘Well, this is just young people working out their place in the world, and it is natural that they aren’t sure’,” says Dr Sikora. 

“But this uncertainty is more common in disadvantaged youth; and this uncertainty can lead to a lifetime of decreased opportunities, compounding that disadvantage.”

“Purposeful role exploration is one thing, and is an important part of young people working out who they are, and where they want to go,” says Dr Sikora. “For those without clear direction, though, they can be left floundering as their peers flourish.”

“It is integral that we are building supports around all young people, to ensure that those who can’t answer the ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ question are getting the help that they need to ensure that they have an answer by the time that they are entering higher education or the workforce.”


Joanna Sikora (2018). ‘Aimless or Flexible? Does Uncertainty in Adolescent Occupational Expectations Matter in Young Adulthood?’. Australian Journal of Education. Free access provided by SAGE.