Viewing adolescents' career futures through the lenses of socioeconomic status and social class.

Author:Eshelman, Alec J.

This study examined socioeconomic status (SES) and perceived social class as predictors of educational and occupational aspirations and expectations in a sample of 100 high school students from 2 midwestern high schools. SES was measured using caregivers' occupation and education, and subjective social status was assessed using the MacArthur Scale of Subjective Social Status-Youth Version (Goodman et al., 2001). SES and perceived social class made independent contributions to educational aspirations, whereas SES made an independent contribution to occupational aspirations and expectations. The authors discuss the importance of SES and social class in career development theory and research and provide practical implications based on the present findings. Overall, this study highlights the importance of measuring SES and social class as distinct constructs and the need for future work to identify the unique impacts of these variables.

Keywords: socioeconomic status, social class, educational aspirations, occupational aspirations, educational expectations


Career development scholars have called for a heightened emphasis on historically underserved populations, such as the poor and the chronically unemployed (Blustein, 2011; Liu & Ali, 2005; Richardson, 1993). Liu and Ali (2005), for example, observed that vocational psychology has often implicitly embraced a classist bias toward upward mobility. Blustein (2011) noted that researchers have tended to focus on middleclass populations who enjoy above-average levels of choice. He further argued that if career professionals hope to understand and assist all working people and not simply middle-class individuals with relatively high levels of vocational volition, the research base of the field must expand to encompass populations that have been largely overlooked in the past. To address some of these shortcomings, the present study examined socioeconomic constructs related to educational and occupational aspirations of high school students from lower socioeconomic status (SES) communities. Gaining a better understanding of these variables is particularly important with respect to adolescent populations, who make pivotal life and career decisions during this phase of life (Akos, Konold, & Niles, 2004; Turner & Lapan, 2005). Moreover, examining these variables in low-income adolescents helps advance important social justice initiatives in the discipline.

Conceptualizing SES and Social Class

Although SES has received concerted research attention, there is ongoing debate regarding whether SES relates mainly to economic position or to social status, or prestige (Bradley & Corwyn, 2002). This ongoing debate has led to some definitional confusion in the literature, with terms such as SES, social class, and economic background often being conflated (Liu et al., 2004). Despite this confusion, it is generally agreed that an essential component of SES is access to resources, or capital. Coleman (1988) described three forms of capital: physical capital, human capital, and social capital. Physical capital is wholly tangible and relates to tools, productive equipment, and other material resources. Human capital relates to nonmaterial resources, such as skills and abilities that are acquired through education. Finally, social capital relates to resources that derive from social relations or connections. Bradley and Corwyn (2002) argued that this notion of SES as capital is perhaps the most prevalent conceptualization espoused by psychologists, probably in part because these forms of capital have relatively direct implications for well-being. Saegert et al. (2007) noted four distinct pathways through which SES affects health and well-being: differential access to health care, differential exposure to environmental hazards, health behaviors, and differential exposure to stress. These numerous detrimental influences affect myriad facets of individuals' lives, including career development and employability (Fugate, Kinicki, & Ashforth, 2004), and underscore the importance of incorporating the construct robustly into career development research.

Although scholars generally agree on the importance of capital to SES, there is disagreement about the role of prestige and status, and some have made a distinction between SES and social class. Liu et al. (2004), for example, argued that even though both SES and social class relate to power, prestige, and access to resources, a primary distinction between the two involves group awareness. Specifically, they observed that social class implies a collective consciousness of a group's relative position within society. SES implies no such group awareness and is instead an index of access to resources and power (Saegert et al., 2007). Similarly, Fouad and Brown (2000) emphasized the distinction between socioeconomic factors and the ways in which these factors are internalized and affect individuals' self-perceptions. They argued that perception of social standing has important impacts on development and personal and social identities and should be examined in greater depth.

Because it relates to self-perception, perceived social class must be assessed differently than SES. So-called objective measures are often used to assess SES, and subjective measures have been helpful in assessing perceived social class (Adler, Epel, Castellazzo, & Ickovics, 2000). Goodman et al. (2001) noted that purely objective measures of SES fail to capture important subjective impacts of social standing. Adler et al. (2000) found that subjective or perceived social status was associated with a variety of biological functions as well as psychological functioning (e.g., pessimism, control over life, and active coping), even after controlling for objective social status. These results provide strong support for assessing the incremental contribution of perceived social class to health and psychological outcomes above and beyond SES.

Educational and Occupational Aspirations and Expectations

As a valuable component of human capital, education is considered a key dimension of employability (Fugate et al., 2004). By equipping individuals with increased skills and knowledge, educational attainment enhances income and health outcomes (Saegert et al., 2007; U.S. Census Bureau, 2009), which underlines the importance of obtaining postsecondary education. Moreover, educational aspirations are closely related to career aspirations, career adaptability (Rottinghaus, Day, & Borgen, 2005), self-efficacy, interests, and personality (Rottinghaus, Lindley, Green, & Borgen, 2002).

McWhirter, Larson, and Daniels (1996) found that educational aspirations of minority adolescents were correlated with parents' educational level. Cook et al. (1996) observed lower occupational aspirations in individuals from poor neighborhoods, and Rojewski and Yang (1997) found a positive relationship between occupational aspirations and SES (measured using a composite score of parents' educational attainment, occupations, and income) in adolescents. Furthermore, Smith-Maddox (1999) found that poverty status was also negatively correlated with educational aspirations. Diemer and Hsieh (2008) explored the importance of sociopolitical development for the development of vocational expectations in a sample of low-SES adolescents of color. These authors noted that a vocational aspiration-expectation gap has been observed in low-SES adolescents but not in higher SES adolescents. This research provides strong evidence of links between SES and occupational and educational aspirations and expectations, but it does not address how individuals' perceptions of their social standing influence these variables.

Purpose of the Study

Diemer and Hsieh's (2008) findings indicate that it is less clear how perceived social class relates to pivotal career development constructs of educational...

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