Uncertainty in early occupational aspirations: Role exploration or aimlessness?

Jeremy Staff, Angel Harris, Ricardo Sabates, Laine Briddell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

89 Scopus citations


Many youth in the United States lack clear occupational aspirations. This uncertainty in achievement ambitions may benefit socio-economic attainment if it signifies "role exploration," characterized by career development, continued education and enduring partnerships. By contrast, uncertainty may diminish attainment if it instead leads to "aimlessness," involving prolonged education without the acquisition of a degree, residential dependence and frequent job changes. We use nationally representative data from the National Education Longitudinal Study to examine how uncertainty in occupational aspirations in adolescence (age 16) affects wage attainments in young adulthood (age 26). Results suggest that youth with undecided career ambitions earn significantly lower hourly wages in young adulthood than youth with more certain aspirations, supporting the view that uncertainty heightens the risk of labor-market problems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)659-683
Number of pages25
JournalSocial Forces
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • History
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology and Political Science


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