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Children, young people and families, Education

Childhood aspirations are an important driver of achievement later in life

Study also finds that children's aspirations are shaped by parents' expectations, highlighting a potential barrier to intergenerational mobility.

26 October 2022

By Emily Reynolds

We all have aspirations and dreams – things we want to achieve in our life, realistic or not. However,  research has suggested that those from lower socio-economic groups aspire for less due to a lack of access to resources and a lack of role models. This, as discussed in the summer issue of The Psychologist, can then impact what people strive for as they feel certain things are off-limits.

A recently published study explores how our aspirations shape our later life outcomes – and the team finds a link between aspirations and achievements that goes above background and ability. This suggests that fostering aspirations, particularly in those from disadvantaged backgrounds, could have a serious impact on achievement.

The team used data from the longitudinal National Child Development Study, which follows over 17,000 people born in the same week in 1958; there have been 10 surveys completed since 1958. The study collects data on socioeconomic background, including parental background and skills; expectations and aspirations for life during teenage years; life achievements in adulthood, including educational and employment outcomes; and life satisfaction. Early surveys also asked participants’ parents about their aspirations for their kids, and teachers similarly predicted the children’s future achievements.

The team reports that socioeconomic background was related to participants’ educational aspirations as they grew up. For example, nearly all participants stated aged 7 that they wanted to continue schooling, but by the age of 11 only 22% of children from the bottom economic quintile said they wanted to continue beyond school leaving age, while 40% of children from the top socioeconomic quintile said they wanted to have a university degree.

However, the researchers also found that the influence of parents and teachers impacted on the formation of aspirations above the socioeconomic background of families and their own abilities. That is, parents’ desires for their children’s future were a stronger influence on their aspirations and, eventually, their achievements, than their socioeconomic background. These effects also depended on the gender of the child: the relationship between parental aspirations and own aspirations was stronger for girls than for boys, while teacher aspiration made a bigger difference for boys.

The study also found that having high aspirations drove higher achievements later in life. While other factors also impacted success, such as cognitive ability or parental education, personal and parental aspirations seemed to be the biggest driving factor.

Occupational achievements by age 50 were also strongly associated with occupational aspirations in childhood: in fact, aspirations formed in adolescence were nearly as influential in determining occupational achievements as cognitive skills. Teacher aspiration was the strongest predictor of achievement.

Finally, the team looked at unmet aspirations and how this impacted wellbeing. At 33, participants – particularly men – were unhappier if they hadn’t achieved what they had aspired to as a child. But this effect disappeared as individuals made their way through their working lives.

So, the study suggests that while aspiration levels are shaped to some degree by socioeconomic background, it is parental aspirations that have a bigger influence on aspiration levels overall. These aspirations then drive achievement further down the line. This suggests that encouraging greater aspirations could help people achieve more, encouraging them to seek higher education or to apply for roles they may initially have felt were beyond their reach.

However, it’s important not to overstate the impact of aspirations when we talk about social class. External, material factors frequently act as barriers to people achieving their dreams, and too heavy a focus on dreaming big could lead to blaming individuals for not overcoming things that are, in fact, structural.