A Class, Apart: The career aspirations of the COVID Generation on the eve of the pandemic

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders – from around the world and all parts of society – address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future.

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Across the globe, significant concerns have been raised about the prospects of the young people who are now completing secondary education. In attempting to plan their futures, the COVID-19 generation faces severely disrupted education provision and a radically reconfigured labour market. Many young people have seen plans to enter work fall through. Others have attempted to stay in education in face of a hostile labour market, making difficult decisions at short notice about what and where to study. In the coronavirus era, career planning is in flux.

More on the Forum Network: Be What You See: Supporting youth to enter the world of work by Nick Chambers, Chief Executive, Education and Employers

What do we know about the career ambitions of the COVID generation on the eve of the pandemic – and does this provide comfort or concern? Every three years, hundreds of thousands of 15-year-olds around the world answer a range of questions in the OECD Programme of International Student Assessment (PISA). Since 2000, these students have responded to a simple question: What kind of job do you expect to have when you are about 30 years old? The generation of young people who completed PISA 2018 are now 17, approaching their 18th birthdays. They are in the midst of transitions from secondary education and training into adulthood.

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PISA 2018 records a generation that includes many young people who express uncertainty, confusion and conservatism in their career thinking. In 2000, an average of 14% of young people across the OECD could be classified as such, meaning that when asked about their occupational plans, they left the response blank, wrote in that they did not know or gave a very vague answer. Eighteen years later, such uncertainty has risen to one-quarter of young people across the OECD. In some PISA countries, uncertainty now approaches more than one-third of the teenage population: Denmark (35%), Dominican Republic (41%), Germany (38%), Israel (35%), Lebanon (38%), Panama (37%) and Belgium where remarkably two-thirds of students are uncertain about their career ambitions.

This is perhaps one of the most ambitious generations in history.

Where ambitions are articulated, they are very high. This is perhaps one of the most ambitious generations in history. Across the OECD, more than two-thirds of respondents expressing a view said that they would attend university and three-quarters anticipated working in a professional or managerial role. Across the OECD, falling levels of interest, particularly among girls and foreign-born youth, are seen in jobs typically entered through Vocational Education and Training. When young people do name a career they expect to work in at age 30, the homogeneity of student thinking is also striking. Earlier OECD studies have shown that the career ambitions of young people are becoming increasingly concentrated. In Dream Jobs? Teenagers’ Career Aspirations and the Future of Work (OECD 2020), the first analysis of PISA 2018 data was revealed. The report shows that on average across the OECD, 53% of girls (up from 49% in 2000) and 47% of boys (up from 38% in 2000) expect to work in one of just ten jobs in their country. Increasing levels of concentration since 2000 have been largely driven by changing expectations among young people from more disadvantaged social backgrounds and among lower achievers on the PISA mathematics, reading and science tests.

Read the new OECD Publication: Dream Jobs? Teenagers' Career Aspirations and the Future of Work

Here are the full results of young people’s career expectations are set out for all 79 countries and economic areas that took part in PISA 2018. In 12 countries, more than 70% of boys and/or girls expressing a view identified a job that they expected to do at age 30 named one of ten popular choices: Baku (Azerbaijan), Brunei Barussalam, Indonesia, Jordan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Morocco, Philippines, Qatar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Saudi Arabia, where youth exhibit the most concentrated aspirations in the PISA sample, 83% of girls and 82% of boys express interest in just ten jobs. Fully 38% of Saudi Arabians expect to be a doctor by the age of 30. At the other end of the spectrum, it is European countries with a reputation for strong systems of Vocational Education and Training (VET) where levels of concentration are at their lowest. In seven countries, 40% or fewer boys or girls favour one of just ten future jobs: Austria, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Hungary, Netherlands and Switzerland.  

Check out young people's top 10 career choices by gender and country

A systemic concern raised by the 2018 data is an average of one in five students can be described as having misaligned expectations and qualifications, which is to say that they hold occupational expectations which typically demand higher levels of qualifications than those they expect to achieve.

Read Schooling Disrupted, Schooling Rethought and other OECD Policy Responses on our COVID-19 Hub

An ill-prepared generation?

One of the themes of the OECD’s forthcoming working paper, Career Ready? How schools can better prepare young people for working live in the era of COVID-19, is that reviews of national longitudinal data systematically show that what young people think about their future working lives can be expected to have an impact on their future success in work. In general, it is better to have an occupational ambition than to be uncertain. Unless they are misaligned, young people with higher ambitions tend to enjoy better employment prospects than less aspirational peers of comparable academic ability as they are likely to stay in education longer.

While research has yet to determine whether similar relationships exist between high levels of teenage career concentration and ultimate economic success, it is reasonable to view such homogeneity as a failure of labour market signalling.  Young people complete the PISA questionnaires at 15 years of age. On average across the OECD, at 16 young people complete compulsory schooling. They are making active decisions about what and where they will study or whether they will enter early into the labour market. PISA 2018 data shows that across the OECD only half of young people have spoken to a career guidance counsellor by the age of 15 and that fewer than 40% have attended a job fair. Lack of concern in the skilled trades and jobs commonly entered through VET is a specific concern. The evidence is strong that in countries with well-functioning VET systems, young people can expect to better withstand the vicissitudes of economic recession if they developing skills in clear demand in the labour market. PISA 2018 suggests a generation of young people raised in an environment where the classroom and the workplace have become isolated from one another. With economies experiencing severe turbulence, the need is all the more pressing for students to demonstrate deeper, more critical understandings of how their educational achievement can relate to attractive lives in a dynamic world of work.

Related Topics

Tackling COVID-19

Future of Education & Skills

Future of Work

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Andreas Schleicher

Director, Education and Skills, OECD

Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills, and Special Advisor on Education Policy to the Secretary-General at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in Paris. As a key member of the OECD Senior Management team, Mr. Schleicher supports the Secretary-General’s strategy to produce analysis and policy advice that advances economic growth and social progress. He promotes the work of the Directorate for Education and Skills on a global stage and fosters co-operation both within and outside the OECD. In addition to policy and country reviews, the work of the Directorate includes the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the OECD Survey of Adult Skills (PIAAC), the OECD Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), and the development and analysis of benchmarks on the performance of education systems (INES). Before joining the OECD, Mr. Schleicher was Director for Analysis at the International Association for Educational Achievement (IEA). He studied Physics in Germany and received a degree in Mathematics and Statistics in Australia. He is the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the “Theodor Heuss” prize, awarded in the name of the first president of the Federal Republic of Germany for “exemplary democratic engagement”. He holds an honorary Professorship at the University of Heidelberg.

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