7.8: Education and a Career

According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) (2016a), in the United States about 84% of 18 to 24 year olds have a high school diploma or GED. Nearly 9 out of every 10 adults aged 25 and up (88%) in the United States have a high school diploma or its equivalent (Ryan & Bauman, 2016). College is an important aspect of the lives of many young adults in the United States, with 36% of 18 to 24 year olds (NCHEMS, 2016b) and 7% of 25 to 49 year olds attending college (NCHEMS, 2016c). More than half of those 25 and older (59%) have completed some college, and 1 in 3 (32.5%) have a bachelor’s degree or higher, with slightly more women (33%) than men (32%) holding a college degree (Ryan & Bauman, 2016). Fifty-six percent of four-year college students earn a Bachelor’s degree within six years (NCHEMS, 2016d).

The rate of college attainment has grown more slowly in the United States than in a number of other nations in recent years (OCED, 2014). This may be due to fact that the cost of attaining a degree is higher in the U.S. than in many other nations.

Table 7.1: Select state data on student debt (2013-14).
TICSA, 2015 Data
State Average Debt Rank Proportion with Debt
Illinois 28,984 16 67%
Wisconsin 28,810 17 70%
Michigan 29,450 9 62%
Indiana 29,222 13 91%
Utah (lowest) 18,921 54%
Delaware (highest) 33,808 62%

In 2014, 7 out of every 10 graduates in the U.S. owed an average of nearly $29,000, up 2 percent from the previous year (The Institute for College Access and Success [TICAS], 2015). As the level of State funding of higher education declines, students are finding that the cost of college is outpacing the rate of inflation, Pell grant increases, and other student scholarships. One in six students are funding their education through personal loans (TICAS, 2015). See Table 7.1 for a comparison of several U.S. States regarding student debt.

Is college worth the time and investment? College is certainly a substantial investment each year, with the financial burden falling on students and their families in the U.S., and mainly by the government in many other nations. Nonetheless, the benefits both to the individual and the society outweighs the initial costs. As can be seen in Figure 7.16, those in America with the most advanced degrees earn the highest income and have the lowest unemployment.


Graph showing earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment.
Figure 7.16: Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment.

Worldwide, over 80% of college educated adults are employed, compared with just over 70% of those with a high school or equivalent diploma, and only 60% of those with no high school diploma (OECD, 2015). Those with a college degree will earn more over the course of their life time. Moreover, the benefits of college education go beyond employment and finances. The OECD found that around the world, adults with higher educational attainment were more likely to volunteer, felt they had more control over their lives, and thus were more interested in the world around them. Studies of U.S. college students find that they gain a more distinct identity and become more socially competent, less dogmatic and ethnocentric compared to those not in college (Pascarella, 2006).

Career Development and Employment

Work plays a significant role in the lives of people, and emerging and early adulthood is the time when most of us make choices that will establish our careers. Career development has a number of stages:

  • Stage One: As children we may select careers based on what appears glamorous or exciting to us (Patton & McMahon, 1999). There is little regard in this stage for whether we are suited for our occupational choices.
  • Stage Two: In the second stage, teens include their abilities and limitations, in addition to the glamour of the occupation when narrowing their choices.
  • Stage Three: Older teens and emerging adults narrow their choices further and begin to weigh more objectively the requirements, rewards, and downsides to careers, along with comparing possible careers with their own interests, values, and future goals (Patton & McMahon, 1999). However, some young people in this stage “fall-into” careers simply because these were what were available at the time, because of family pressures to pursue particular paths, or because these were high paying jobs, rather than from an intrinsic interest in that career path (Patton & McMahon, 1999).
  • Stage Four: Super (1980) suggests that by our mid to late thirties, many adults settle in their careers. Even though they might change companies or move up in their position, there is a sense of continuity and forward motion in their career. However, some people at this point in their working life may feel trapped, especially if there is little opportunity for advancement in a more dead-end job.

How have things changed for Millennials compared with previous generations of early adults? In recent years, young adults are more likely to find themselves job-hopping, and periodically returning to school for further education and retraining than in prior generations. However, researchers find that occupational interests remain fairly stable. Thus, despite the more frequent change in jobs, most people are generally seeking jobs with similar interests rather than entirely new careers (Rottinghaus, Coon, Gaffey & Zytowski, 2007).


Illustration of the silhouettes of a man and a woman and a magnifying glass
Figure 7.17: Searching for jobs.

Recent research also suggests that Millennials are looking for something different in their place of employment. According to a recent Gallup poll report (2016), Millennials want more than a paycheck, they want a purpose. Unfortunately, only 29% of Millennials surveyed by Gallup reported that they were “engaged” at work. In fact, they report being less engaged than Gen Xers and Baby Boomers; with 55% of Millennials saying they are not engaged at all with their job. This indifference to their workplace may explain the greater tendency to switch jobs. With their current job giving them little reason to stay, they are more likely to take any new opportunity to move on. Only half of Millennials saw themselves working at the same company a year later. Gallup estimates that this employment turnover and lack of engagement costs businesses $30.5 billion a year.

NEETs: Around the world, teens and young adults were some of the hardest hit by the economic downturn in recent years (Desilver, 2016). Consequently, a number of young people have become NEETs, neither employed nor in education or training. While the number of young people who are NEETs has declined, there is concern that “without assistance, economically inactive young people won’t gain critical job skills and will never fully integrate into the wider economy or achieve their full earning potential” (Desilver, 2016, para. 3). In Europe, where the rates of NEETs are persistently high, there is also concern that having such large numbers of young adults with little opportunity may increase the chances of social unrest.

In the United States, in 2015 nearly 17% of 16 to 29 year-olds were neither employed nor in school, according to data Desilver (2016) obtained from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This is down slightly from 2013, when approximately 18.5% of this age group fit the category. As noted in Table 7.2, more women than men find themselves unemployed and not in school. Additionally, most NEETs have high school or less education, and Asians are less likely to be NEETs than any other ethnic group.

The rate of NEETs varies in European nations, with higher rates found in nations that have been the hardest hit by economic recessions and government austerity measures. For example, more than 25% of those 15-29 (European data use a lower age group: 15 rather than 16) in Greece and Italy are unemployed and not seeking or receiving further education. In contrast, countries less affected by an economic downturn, such as Denmark, had much lower rates (7.3%).

Table 7.2: Who are the American NEETs?
Note: Hispanics can be of any race. Totals may not sum to 100% because of rounding. Source: Pew Research Center analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Number (in 1000s) % of all NEETs % of total subgroup
Total 10,200 100.0% 16.9%
Male 4,300 42.6 14.4
Female 5,900 57.4 19.5
16-19 2,200 21.7 13.3
20-24 3,800 37.6 17.5
25-29 4,200 40.7 19.1
White 7,000 69.1 15.8
Black 2,000 19.7 22.2
Asian 600 5.0 14.2
Other 500 6.2 20.9
Hispanic 2,500 24.5 19.5
Less than HS grad 2,700 26.7
HS grad, no college 4,100 40.0
Some college 1,700 16.9
Associate degree 500 5.1
Bachelor’s degree or higher 1,100 11.2

What role does gender play on career and employment? Gender also has an impact on career choices. Despite the rise in the number of women who work outside of the home, there are some career fields that are still pursued more by men than women. Jobs held by women still tend to cluster in the service sector, such as education, nursing, and child-care worker. While in more technical and scientific careers, women are greatly outnumbered by men. Jobs that have been traditionally held by women tend to have lower status, pay, benefits, and job security (Ceci & Williams, 2007).

In recent years, women have made inroads into fields once dominated by males, and today women are almost as likely as men to become medical doctors or lawyers. Despite these changes, women are more likely to have lower-status, and thus less pay than men in these professions. For instance, women are more likely to be a family practice doctor than a surgeon, or are less likely to make partner in a law firm (Ceci & Williams, 2007).


Sexism or gender discrimination is prejudice or discrimination based on a person’s sex or gender. Sexism can affect any sex that is marginalized or oppressed in a society; however, it is particularly documented as affecting females. It has been linked to stereotypes and gender roles and includes the belief that males are intrinsically superior to other sexes and genders. Extreme sexism may foster sexual harassment, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.

Sexism can exist on a societal level, such as in hiring, employment opportunities, and education. In the United States, women are less likely to be hired or promoted in male-dominated professions, such as engineering, aviation, and construction (Blau, Ferber, & Winkler, 2010; Ceci & Williams, 2011). In many areas of the world, young girls are not given the same access to nutrition, healthcare, and education as boys. Sexism also includes people’s expectations of how members of a gender group should behave. For example, women are expected to be friendly, passive, and nurturing; when a woman behaves in an unfriendly or assertive manner, she may be disliked or perceived as aggressive because she has violated a gender role (Rudman, 1998). In contrast, a man behaving in a similarly unfriendly or assertive way might be perceived as strong or even gain respect in some circumstances.


Photo of bills from different currencies
Figure 7.18: Occupational sexism involves wage discrimination.

Occupational sexism involves discriminatory practices, statements, or actions, based on a person’s sex, that occur in the workplace. One form of occupational sexism is wage discrimination. In 2008, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that while female employment rates have expanded, and gender employment and wage gaps have narrowed nearly everywhere, on average women still have a 20 percent less chance to have a job. The Council of Economic Advisors (2015) found that despite women holding 49.3% of the jobs, they are paid only 78 cents for every $1.00 a man earns. It also found that despite the fact that many countries, including the U.S., have established anti-discrimination laws, these laws are difficult to enforce. In the United States, women account for 47% of the overall labor force, yet they make up only 6 percent of corporate CEOs and top executives. Some researchers see the root cause of this situation in the tacit discrimination based on gender, conducted by current top executives and corporate directors (who are primarily male).


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Lifespan Development - A Psychological Perspective by Martha Lally and Suzanne Valentine-French is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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