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Those kids today

New research shows that today’s teenagers, contrary to their portrayal in the media as baggy-pants-wearing slackers, comprise what sociology professor Barbara Schneider has dubbed the “ambitious generation”—a group of young people more eager than those in the past to attend college and get good jobs.
The misconceptions have spread, she says, because some of those ambitious teens give up on their dreams—partly as a result of not getting enough guidance from parents and schools.

Schneider presents her portrait of today’s teens in a new book called The Ambitious Generation: America’s Teenagers, Motivated but Directionless (Yale). The book was co-authored by the late David Stevenson, who was the assistant director for social and behavioral sciences at the White House, and is based on interviews and observations at 12 high schools across the country; data from the Alfred P. Sloan Study of Youth and Social Development, a national longitudinal study of 1,221 students in the sixth, eighth, tenth, and 12th grades; and information gathered using an experience-sampling technique in which students were paged at various times during the day and asked to record their activities and thoughts.

Among their findings, Schneider and Stevenson show that teenagers today are more likely than previous generations to spend time alone, to feel bored and unengaged, and to change friends often. Their aspirations also differ. More than 90 percent of high-school seniors expect to attend some type of college, as compared to 55 percent in the 1950s. Seventy percent today expect to work in professional jobs, compared to 42 percent in the 1950s.

The problem with such high aspirations, point out the researchers, is that the number of professional jobs available in the early part of the next century is not expected to match the number of students who say they wish to become doctors, lawyers, business executives, and other professionals. By contrast, the number of jobs available in service and administrative occupations should grow faster than the number of adolescents who say they want those jobs.

The researchers further discovered in their interviews that students at all levels have difficulty making decisions about their futures. Too often, they found, counselors in high school limit their focus to the college admissions process and infrequently help students make career decisions, while parents also fail to thoroughly discuss future job prospects with their children.

The result is an “ambition paradox,” conclude Schneider and Stevenson, in which students with very high ambitions choose an educational route with low odds of success. About 56 percent of the students surveyed had “misaligned ambitions,” expecting to obtain more or less education than needed for a certain field.

The Ambitious Generation urges adults to help students develop “aligned ambitions.” According to the authors, adolescents ideally should choose a career while in high school, learn what education it requires, and then seek related mentors and internships.

“Students with high ambitions who choose an education path with low odds for successfully reaching their goals can make decisions from which it is difficult to recover,” says Schneider. “Students with aligned ambitions are more likely to successfully navigate the transition from high school to college and to make choices that increase the chances that they will realize their dreams.”—William Harms

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