Summer 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA1

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Young People Want It All!


Preparing youth for their future.

Joyce A. Walker
Extension Specialist
4-H Youth Development
Minnesota Extension Service
University of Minnesota, St. Paul


Young people in the 1980s have tremendous opportunities to determine their family life roles and occupational choices. Today, there's less sex-role rigidity and less sense of limitation. For youth, the future holds the potential to fulfill the dreams of childhood as well as new-found aspirations. However, societal messages about roles and options for family and career are numerous and conflicting. Career development education must address the mix of traditional and contemporary messages that youth receive about lifestyle choices and individual goals for career and family.

Career education too often centers on interest inventories, self-directed searches, specific career data, educational requirements, and job-seeking skills. Recent studies at the University of Minnesota and Michigan State University point toward a broader curriculum grounded in intergenerational discussion, exploration combined with serious reflection, and realistic preparation for goal setting and decision making.

The Minnesota Youth Poll and the Michigan Early Adolescent Study examine what young people say about their aspirations, career interests, future expectations, and sex-role attitudes. Both studies underscore the contradictions and conflicts that arise as young people today struggle with life planning, while juggling their "contemporary" and "traditional" visions of future work and family roles.

Careers Are Important

Careers are important to young people. Identity and status come from career. In the Minnesota poll, 67% of girls and 47% of boys expect to be employed in highly skilled professional or technical work. Only two percent of the girls aspire to be homemakers. The Michigan survey indicated that young men prefer technical and outdoor jobs (risking and challenging careers) such as chemist, architect, forester, and space engineer. Young women cited a preference for service work (nurturing careers) such as secretary, teacher, and child care worker. Both girls and boys listed "being unemployed" as the major definition of failure in adulthood.1

Having It All

Young people believe that they can do it-and have it-all. Girls want husbands, careers, and children without recognition of the inherent difficulties in being at once a Supermom, a Cinderella wife, and a model career woman.2 Success in adulthood, young women report, means happiness, a good job (high status, high pay, and enjoyable), wealth, and a happy family life. Urban high school girls in the Minnesota poll said, "We want to marry a successful, handsome man, but we want to have a choice to work or not, so in case we're on our own, we can take care of ourselves and not be dependent on anyone."

Young men said adult success means wealth, a nice car and house, a good job, happiness, and a happy family. The majority of boys assumed they'd get married and have a family, but felt "little or no concern about potential conflicts between career and family roles as they opt almost exclusively for their careers." A 16-year-old boy said, "Men can usually work their way up faster without delays like having children or worrying about them. Sometimes because men are stronger and more determined to make a good living, they are able to put more hours into their work."

Limited Work Opportunities

The actual significant job experience available to young people is limited. Although increasingly high percentages of high school students work 15-20 hours a week, the jobs of Minnesota teenagers are overwhelmingly low-status, minimum wage jobs in the service sector. Child care, maintenance, food service, office work, stocking shelves, and teacher aid positions are most common. Suburban youth have the largest selection of job opportunities available and rural youth the smallest. Half the teens said the jobs they hold have little positive influence on their future career plans.

Unrealistic Expectations

Since opportunities for real exploration are negligible, unrealistic expectations go unchallenged. Although only two percent of the girls indicated they'd be homemakers at age 30, 63% said they wouldn't work when they were pregnant or had young children. Archer reports, A majority of the females plan to withdraw from the labor force temporarily while their children are young. They assume that their jobs will be waiting for them when they are ready to return. No consideration is given to the need to update their skills in order to reenter the work force.3

Reinforced Sex Roles

Youth report that males and females are treated different in the home and to a lesser degree in the schools. Young men are allowed to risk more, are given greater freedom and responsibility, and are encouraged to be independent. Young women are held to higher standards of conduct, are pampered and overprotected, aren't encouraged to take risks, and are subtly encouraged to be dependent. Both sexes agree that differential treatment is more detrimental to young women than young men.

Parents Are Key Influences

Finally, although we know that parents and significant adults remain the single greatest influence on the career planning and lifestyle choice of young people, the Minnesota and Michigan studies agree that parents spend little time discussing these topics with their children. Thirty-three percent of the fathers and 11 % of the mothers had never talked to their children about careers.5 About 25% of the fathers and 38% of the mothers said they'd done so once or twice. Fathers were significantly more likely to have talked to their sons than their daughters about career preparation. The Minnesota poll indicates that less than half the boys and girls had any idea of their parents' career expectations for them .


The following suggestions can help move existing career programs and projects closer to the developmental needs of young people as they face the dilemmas of balancing contemporary and more traditional aspirations for family, career, and personal achievement:

  1. Assure intergenerational discussion.

    a. Promote ongoing, interactive forums for adults and young people to discuss the wide range of career- and life-planning issues together. Resist career programs that feature youth working without persistent, active adult involvement. Encourage candid sharing of dreams, impediments, successes, and questions. Encourage mothers and fathers to talk with their children about their own life planning. Recognize that planning for the future is more than a career decision.

    b. Train parents and volunteers to initiate discussions and provide career guidance. Stress the importance of employment and careers for both young men and women today. Offer adult education programs for parents to help them help their child choose a career. Help parents understand the consequence of youth cutting off options by premature narrowing of school coursework.

  2. Provide exploration and reflection.

    a. Establish career exploration to enable young people to try out a number of work options. Consider job shadowing, short-term volunteer assignments in varied settings, and events that allow in-depth experience in a number of work settings. Sponsor follow-up discussions to reflect and share the experience and [earnings. Tap alumni to help in exploration programs. Develop support systems and mentor relationships for young people.

    b. Target volunteer recruitment to include a variety of male and female role models relevant to young people. Seek models that represent the wide range of job interests and high career aspirations of young people.

  3. Emphasize goal-setting and decision-making skills.

    a. Work with other youth organizations that have existing curricula. Consider such programs as the Choice/Challenges curriculum of the Girls' Club, the Explorer programs of the Boy Scouts, and the models of the Experience-Based Career Education program (EBCE). Infuse all curricula with decisionmaking models-this skill will be used repeatedly during progressive career steps and changes in life.

    b. Promote equity and risk for young men and women. Insist that leaders understand the negative consequences of differential treatment and persistent sex-role stereotyping in organizational activities. Model egalitarian participation. Every child needs to practice making decisions and setting goals in personal and group activities.


Young women and young men must be better informed about what the future holds. The model for the future is that the lives of women and men will be similar. Both will be workers for a majority of their adult lives. Both will be parents. As parents and adults, we're asking youth to make hard and clearheaded decisions about their lives and futures,

    ... during a time of remarkable social flux and confusion. We cannot ourselves be that clear-headed; we cannot avoid right now giving them many mixed messages. We must help them know the facts and probabilities about their futures!

Armed with realistic expectations, high aspirations, and sturdy support systems, youth can be prepared to move into strong partnership, parenting, employment, and community leadership roles. Youth development education programs have a challenging role to teach the sorting, prioritizing, practice, and exploration that young people must undertake to prepare for their futures.


1. Diane Hedin and others, Minnesota Youth Poll: Aspirations, Future Plans, and Expectations of Young People in Minnesota (St. Paul, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Agricultural Experiment Station, 1985), 17.

2. Ibid., 33.

3. Sally L. Archer, "Career and/or Family: The Identity Process for Adolescent Girls" (Unpublished manuscript, Trenton, New Jersey, 1984), p. 20.

4. Hedin and others, Minnesota Youth Poll, p. 25.

5. Joanne Keith and Leah Hoopfer, Michigan Early Adolescent Survey (East Lansing, Michigan: Michigan State University, Cooperative Extension Service, 1985), p. 18.

6. Arvonne Fraser, "Women, Public Policy and Development Project" (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota, Hubert Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, 1984).

7. Joan Lipsitz, "The Economic Future of Girls and Young Women" (Speech presented at the Conference on the Economic Future of Girls and Young Women, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1984).