Teens' Working Dreams

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A new survey shows that teenagers are optimistic about their career prospects, eager to work in teams, and not so eager to become supervisors.

When teenagers imagine their future as workers, more than two-thirds strongly agree that they should be optimistic about their chances of having a good job. That is good news for their baby-boomer parents, who are raising children in an era of rapidly changing economic fortunes. But members of the baby-boomlet generation may challenge employers as they bring a new set of values to work.

Last year, Drexel University's Center for Employment Futures in Philadelphia asked a national sample of more than 2,000 high school students aged 15 to 17 about their plans and dreams concerning work. They found that about one-third of teens already have some experience with the subject. During the school year, 39 percent of students work an average of about 18 hours per week in full- or part-time jobs. Students from the South work slightly more than those from other regions (an average of 19 hours a week), while employed northeastern students work the least (about 16 hours).

The percentage of working teens increases greatly during the summer months. During the non-school part of the year, 59 percent of teens work full- or part-time. Regardless of the season, young men are more likely to be employed than young women--43 percent of young men and 35 percent of young women hold jobs during the school year, and 65 percent of teenage men compared with 56 percent of teenage women during the summer months.

The Drexel poll also goes beyond present work experience to give an early indication of the values of the baby boomlet, or at least the slice of that generation aged 15 to 17 in 1997. It shows that the children of baby boomers are excited about working in teams, and that a large segment are confident that sexual harassment and economic discrimination against women are on the way out. It also shows that the boomlet may mix an old-fashioned desire to get ahead with a heightened concern for helping others.

I Want to Be... Teenagers may be aware that America's aging population will increase the demand for health care. A significant share of teens (14 percent) anticipate being in the health-care field when they are in their mid-20s, and 16 percent anticipate the same career choice for their mid-40s. They do not seem as aware of the need for teachers, however. Only 7 percent of 15-to-17-year-olds foresee holding a job in education in their mid-20s, and just 8 percent say they plan to be educators in their 40s.

Many parents advise their children to choose careers in computer science, but kids don't seem to be listening: only 6 percent of teens in the Drexel survey see themselves working in computing in their mid-20s or their mid-40s. And despite the long-term rise of women in the work force, 11 percent of teens don't want to be employed for pay: they describe their anticipated job for their 20s as "homemaker."

In 1997, the vast majority of Americans in their 40s held a full-time job. This rule will also hold for the work force of the future, if the forecasts of teenagers come true. Nine in ten teens think that by the time they are in their mid-40s, they will be employed full-time. Five percent say that they will have both a full- and a part-time job. Only 2 percent say that they will have a part-time job. This may be optimistic: in 1997, 11 percent of employed Americans aged 45 to 54 worked as independent contractors, on-call workers, or temporary help.

Accurate estimates of the number of home-based workers are hard to find, because this broad term can include everything from the self-employed to telecommuters to people who occasionally work at home after hours. The confusion will grow if the next generation of workers has its way. More than four in ten teenagers describe the option of working from home in the future as "extremely important." African-American students are more likely than non-Hispanic whites or Hispanics to be excited about working from home.

As the number of businesses with overseas operations expands, more U.S. workers may be needed to work in other countries. In the poll, a slight majority of young men and 45 percent of young women say that working abroad is an option. The idea of working out of the country is slightly more appealing to non-Hispanic whites and Hispanics than it is to African Americans. But so far, most teens have not realized that they need language training to participate fully in the global economy. Regardless of their race or ethnicity, only 48 percent of 15-to-17-year-olds say that it is important to learn a foreign language.

What Boomlet Workers Want Teenagers are aware that social skills are among the tools they will need in the workplace. More than half of the teens surveyed feel that it is extremely important to be able to get along well with other people at work, and 51 percent agree that it is extremely important to work well as part of a team. In both instances, young women are more likely than young men to see these skills as extremely important.

Some attitudes are viewed similarly by both sexes. Almost half of those surveyed (46 percent) rate computer skills as extremely important. The ability to formulate creative, original ideas and solutions is extremely important to 27 percent of teens. Being physically fit is extremely important to 24 percent of both men and women.

The Drexel poll hints that the workplace atmosphere of 2010 could be a much calmer and more low-key place than it is today. Only 16 percent of teens feel that it is extremely important to gain recognition for their contributions to the specific field in which they plan to work, and only 14 percent think it is extremely important to make a contribution to scientific ideas. The poll also hints that positions of power might be going out of fashion. Just 8 percent of teens think it is extremely important to have people report to them.

Some of the hot-button issues in today's labor force may become non-issues, if the predictions of today's teens come true. About one-third of those surveyed say that sexual harassment is likely to fade, and 31 percent say that the glass ceiling for women will disappear over time. Young men (35 percent) are more likely than young women (28 percent) to agree strongly that economic discrimination against women will disappear.

The next wave of workers may also push for further expansion of job benefits that accommodate personal lives. More than one-third of those surveyed (39 percent) deem it highly important for an employer to provide unpaid family leave. One-third of students also say that it is extremely important for employers to provide workers with same-sex partner benefits. Hispanics (43 percent) are more likely than African Americans (34 percent) or non-Hispanic whites (26 percent) to see same-sex partner benefits as an extremely important issue.

One job benefit that most teenagers do not look forward to is Social Security. Fewer than four in ten surveyed (38 percent) strongly agree that Social Security benefits will be available when they are ready to retire. African-American (50 percent) and Hispanic (45 percent) teenagers are more likely than non-Hispanic white teens (33 percent) to trust in the solvency of Social Security.

When Drexel asked teenagers to share their main reasons for working, they revealed a mix of self-interest and altruism. Thirty-nine percent of 15-to-17-year-olds say that becoming financially successful is extremely important. Only16 percent place as much importance on owning their own businesses. Only 10 percent place great importance on creating artistic works.

Still, it isn't all about money. The single most important concept teens say will guide their working lives is "to help others who need help": this goal is named by 42 percent as extremely important. "Promoting racial understanding" is also highly rated, with 32 percent naming it extremely important.

If teenagers are able to maintain their altruism as they grow, the business environment of the future may indeed be a kinder and gentler place. Only 56 percent of teens currently view business and industry in a positive light. In 20 years, when the children of baby boomers assume positions of authority in the workplace, they will get their chance to change things.

Taking It Further The Drexel University Futures Poll: Teenagers, Technology and Tomorrow is the first release of data in a long-term effort to study 15-, 16-, and 17-year-olds and their preferences and opinions about issues that will affect their work, education, and personal futures. For more information, contact survey director Arthur B. Shostak at the Center for Employment Futures, Drexel University, 3141 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia PA 19104; telephone (215) 895-2466 or visit the University's web page at http://www.drexel.edu.

Works Well with Others (percent aged 15 to 17 who characterize work-related attitudes, traits, and skills as "extremely important," by sex, 1997)

[DATA TABLE, see print edition]

Source: Drexel University Futures Poll

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