Why some of the UK's most ambitious children are losing out


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From an early age, children are asked about what they would like to do when they grow up. Their answers – and the jobs they go on to do – reveal some striking differences.

From sportsperson to vet to lawyer, the UK’s children have their sights set on ambitious jobs.

But a closer look at the aspirations of boys and girls from different ethnic backgrounds shows that some are aiming higher than others.

Until now, we have known very little about these differences. But the answers to questions about whether children expect to attend university and what work they hope to do provides a new insight.

It also raises questions about why some children who aim high and get a good education do not go on to find high-paying jobs.

The ambitions of boys

Across all ethnic groups, boys often say they want to be a sportsman, or engineer, with many also aspiring to become lawyers or doctors.

As they grow older, ambitions tend to become more realistic, with fewer imagining they will be a top sports star.

But some ethnic groups are aiming for jobs that attract higher wages than others, a look at the data suggests. Their answers form part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which follows about 19,000 children born in the UK in 2000-01.

By their mid-teens, white and Indian boys aspire to jobs with an estimated average hourly wage of about £18. Bangladeshi boys start off aiming for significantly lower-paid jobs, but, like Pakistani and black African boys, end up aspiring to jobs with hourly wages of about £24.

By the time they turn 14, boys also have very different views about whether they will get a degree.

Asked how likely they thought it was that they would go to university, white and black Caribbean boys gave themselves a 60% chance. In contrast, black African, Indian and Bangladeshi boys all gave themselves an 80% chance.

The ambitions of girls

Girls are also aspiring to highly-paid jobs, although their preferred professions tend to be less well-paid than those of boys, particularly when they are younger.

The most popular choices are largely professional jobs, including medicine, law and teaching. There are also significant numbers who hope to work with animals, or as performers. There are noticeably fewer who want to be sports stars.

As with boys, the jobs preferred by ethnic minority girls tend to be significantly more highly paid than those of white girls.

By the age of 15, girls hope to be in jobs which attract estimated average hourly wages ranging from £16 for white girls, to £19 for black Caribbean girls, £20 for Indian and Pakistani girls and £21 for Bangladeshi and black African girls

Girls have higher educational aspirations than boys across all ethnic groups.

And girls from all minority groups have higher educational expectations than their white peers.

Asked about whether they consider themselves likely to go to university, white girls give themselves about a 70% chance. In contrast, Bangladeshi, black African, Indian and Pakistani girls all give themselves a chance of at least 80%.

How well children actually do

The high educational and career ambitions of children from ethnic minority groups have been matched by the numbers going on to university.

Although the children questioned about their aspirations are too young to have completed their education, we know what has happened among 25-year-olds from Next Steps, a representative study of 16,000 young people growing up in England.

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For both men and women, about half of black African and Indian people have a degree, or higher degree, by the age of 25, responses to this survey suggest.

The proportion of men and women from other backgrounds who have degrees is lower – ranging from about 21% to 33%.

Across all ethnic groups, women were more likely to have degrees than men.

Against this background, we know that children from all ethnic groups are hoping to get good jobs.

Not all of them will achieve their desired occupations – some of those who want to be doctors may end up as lawyers, for example. The child who wants to be a sports star may find their talents serve them better as a pilot.

But if they aimed lower from the start, they would be less likely to end up in a “good” job.

More like this

It remains to be seen whether the children who are now teenagers will go on to find jobs that match their ambitions.

But if we look again at those who are now 25, we can see that there are differences in average pay for both those with and without degrees across different ethnic groups.

For example, young black Caribbean men with a degree command significantly lower wages – around £60 per week less – on average than white men with a degree, who typically get gross weekly pay of around £513.

Among women with a degree, young Pakistani, Bangladeshi and black Caribbean women with degrees take home between £90 and £35 per week less than their white counterparts. Indian women receive significantly higher wages – about £70 more than white women’s £435.

It is difficult to know exactly why this is happening.

We have found that parents’ occupations and preferences do influence boys and girls, but high ambitions remain even when family background and expectations are taken into account. Families are not “holding children back”.

Differences do not appear to be the result of different choices. Do they instead represent a lack of options and even racism in the workplace, as some studies have suggested?

Whatever else is driving these differences in pay, it is clear that it doesn’t come down to a lack of ability, or ambition.


About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Prof Lucinda Platt is professor of social policy and sociology at the LSE. Her report, written with Samantha Parsons from University College London , can be found here.

The methodology used in the report took account of family background and other factors. Some ethnic groups, including Chinese people, were represented in the survey in numbers too small to analyse separately.

Follow Prof Platt’s department’s work at @lsesocialpolicy.


Edited by Duncan Walker



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