How do career dreams really work out?

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education and family correspondent

image source, Getty Images
image captionFrom dream job to reality: The most typical type of work turned out to be a sales assistant

When young people were asked in 2011 about the careers they wanted, the most popular ambitions were for jobs such as doctors, vets, firefighters, police officers, nurses, teachers and actors.

But the Office for National Statistics has gone back and found a reality gap with what really happened to their lives six years later.

Apart from those who aimed to go into teaching, less than one in 50 were in the career they had wanted - with most working as sales assistants, carers or in sales and marketing.

They were also earning less than they had expected and fewer of them had gone to university than they had hoped.

Reality gap

The ONS study asked 16- to 21-year-olds what they wanted to do in their working lives.

Their priorities were to have jobs that were "interesting", "secure" and with family friendly hours.

image source, Getty Images
image captionLess than one in 50 achieved their ambition of a health service job - and by age 30, typical earnings are £24,000

They aimed for a mix of glamorous and creative jobs, such as actors or in film or television, and jobs where they might help the public, such as a range of health service jobs or in the police or emergency services.

Teaching was also popular - and almost one in 20 of those aiming to work in education achieved their goal, much higher than any of the other popular career ambitions.

Education was one of the biggest sources of employment and proved to have been the most realistic career choice.

Most typical jobs

But there was a huge gap between the career dream and the reality for most, when this age group had reached their early to late-20s, in 2017.

The report, Young people's career aspirations versus reality, shows how few got the top choices they had hoped for:

  • Only 1.4% had got jobs in the media or arts, such as a producer, actor or writer
  • Only 1.7% were in jobs such as the police or emergency services
  • Only about 1.7% became health professionals, such as dentists or pharmacists

The most typical jobs for these people in their twenties included:

  • sales assistants and cashiers
  • caring and personal services
  • teaching and education-related
  • sales and marketing
  • administration
  • IT
  • childcare
  • financial services
  • 'other elementary services'

There were rising numbers of people in this age group working in caring and IT but there had been a decline in construction jobs.

The ONS study, based on its annual population survey and its understanding society survey, also found that young people were likely to face disappointments in pay.

About one in 20 expected to be earning £80,000 by the age of 30 - but the ONS projects average earnings of less than £24,000.

Nick Chambers, chief executive of the Education and Employers careers charity, said young people's ambitions were often defined by the limited range of jobs they knew about - such as teachers they saw in school, the jobs they saw on television or the jobs of their family and friends.

And this could be a barrier to social mobility. "You can't be it, if you can't see it," he said.

"There's a mismatch between the jobs that young people know about and the reality of the jobs market."

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