Jun 14, 2011

From the Archives

What Teens Aspire to Do in Life, How Churches Can Help

During graduation season, conversations about college and career come to the forefront for many students and their families. A new Barna Group study explores the vocational aspirations of U.S. teenagers and examines the role of faith communities in influencing churchgoing teens’ college and career decisions.

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The Work Teens Aspire to Do
The vast majority of young people have firm ideas about their professional futures. Of course, teenagers’ career goals often change as they mature, develop new interests, or discover other avenues to pursue. Still, the study shows that most young people rarely lack ideas of what they would like to do, even at a relatively early age.

Today’s teens reflect a mixture of professional aspirations, but they are dominated by two broad interests: science and creativity.

In terms of science-connected careers, the most common goal is to work in medicine or the health care field (mentioned by 23% of teenagers). Other occupations desired by teenagers include engineering (13%), science (8%), veterinary care (5%), and technology (5%). Overall, more than half of the students express interest in some type of scientific or applied science career.

One-fifth of the students are attracted to creative vocations, including arts or music (10%), graphic arts (4%), culinary arts (3%), and fashion or interior design (3%).

Other common categories mentioned by teens include law (8%), education (7%), law enforcement or firefighting (6%), government and political science (4%), journalism (4%), the military (4%), social services (4%), business (4%), construction or industrial manufacturing (3%), automotive services (2%), agriculture (2%), athletics (2%), ministry (1%), accounting (1%), and aviation (1%).

The Role of Faith
Churchgoing teenagers mirror the broad interests of their non-churched peers; half are interested in a science-related profession and roughly one-fifth want a career in a creative field.

Still, there are some differences when it gets down to specific career objectives. Students with an active faith (defined as reading the Bible, attending church and praying in a typical week) are more likely than average to be interested in arts and music, ministry, journalism and law. Also, young Protestants are comparatively more interested in physically demanding careers such as construction, agriculture and the military, while young Catholics express above-average interest in journalism and education.

One of the strongest faith-related patterns is that teenagers with a literalist view of Scripture are among the least likely to want to pursue careers in “science” or “technology.” This pattern does not extend to other careers that are science-oriented, such as medicine or engineering, where literalist-minded teens express average interest.

Another interesting differentiation is between public-schooled and privately educated teens, many of whom attend Christian or Catholic schools. Private school students are more interested than average in arts and music, ministry, government and political science, and graphic arts. Public school teens are relatively more interested in accounting and financial careers, social work, law and business.

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The Blurring of the Gender Gap
The research provides clear evidence that teen-aged girls feel fully empowered to pursue almost any career they like. As expected, young women exhibit traditional preferences for teaching, fashion, interior design, and nursing. But teen females are more likely than teen males to aspire to work in journalism (7% versus less than 1%), business (6% versus 1%), and law (11% versus 5%). And teen girls are equally likely to be interested in the military (3% among females versus 5% among males), arts and music (10% versus 10%), public safety including law enforcement and firefighting (6% versus 7%), and government (4% versus 5%).

Another telling fact about the changing views of young women is that only 1% explicitly identify “domestic work” or “homemaking” as their future career choice.

David Kinnaman, the Barna researcher who directed the study, commented on this finding. “Today’s teen girls—even if they aspire to be married and have children at some point—want or feel they ought to have some career plans in place. The vast majority of today’s young women are thinking education first, then career, then perhaps family someday.”

The Role of Faith Leaders
The Barna study also probed the views of Protestant clergy, including youth leaders and senior pastors. Only 38% of youth pastors and 36% of senior pastors say they frequently discuss college plans with their students. The research among youth workers showed that conversations with students about college occur most frequently in churches with an ample number of adult assistants in the youth ministry, where there is a clear strategy for student ministry in the church, and in those churches that work effectively with teen leaders.

Still, there is a gap between church experiences and career aspirations. Only 1% of youth workers say they had addressed issues related to science in the last year and a similarly small percentage had taught about creativity or the arts. These facts illustrate the disconnect between where teens’ future professional interests lie, and the encouragement and instruction they receive in their church or faith community.

With the vast majority of teenagers hoping to experience and graduate from college someday (see previous Barna study on this subject), Kinnaman suggested that college and career decisions represent an important opportunity for faith leaders to influence students. “Today’s teens have huge aspirations in life and a great deal of self-confidence that is sometimes out of proportion with their abilities. Taught to believe they can accomplish anything at anytime, many young people figure if they see a problem or a need, they can just start a new company or nonprofit to address it. And armed with technology, some of them are actually doing that.

“Still, many young people do not seem to understand how a rich, historic understanding of the Christian faith and the gospel ought to inform their career aspirations,” Kinnaman continued. “And faith leaders are not as intentional as they could be with instruction and coaching on these types of decisions. Understanding how teenagers hope to spend their professional lives can help faith communities and institutions better support these students as they discern God’s calling in their lives.”

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About the Research
This report is based upon a nationwide survey, conducted by Barna Group with a random sample of teenagers, ages 13 to 17. The study, known as YouthPoll(SM), is an annual tracking study, conducted online, using one of the nation’s only nationally representative online panels. The survey included interviews with 602 teens. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages in relation to demographic variables.

The teen survey was conducted using the web-enabled KnowledgePanel®. Created by Knowledge Networks, the panel is a probability-based online non-volunteer access panel. Panel members are recruited using a statistically valid sampling method with a published sample frame of residential addresses that covers approximately 97% of U.S. households. Sampled non-Internet households, when recruited, are provided a netbook computer and free Internet service so they may also participate as online panel members. KnowledgePanel includes persons living in cell phone only households.

The YouthLeaderPoll(SM) was conducted among 508 full-time or part-time youth pastors and youthworkers in the U.S. The study was completed online, but relied upon a random, representative list of churches from which eligible participants were recruited by telephone and sent email and conventional mail invitations to participate. The sample has a maximum margin of sampling error of ±4.3 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the sample to known population percentages.

The PastorPoll(SM) included 614 telephone interviews, conducted with a random, representative sample of clergy. The maximum margin of sampling error associated with the aggregate sample is ±4.1 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. Minimal statistical weighting was used to calibrate the aggregate samples to known population percentages in relation to regional and denominational variables.

Barna Group (which includes its research division, the Barna Research Group) is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. It conducts primary research, produces media resources pertaining to spiritual development, and facilitates the healthy spiritual growth of leaders, children, families and Christian ministries.

Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984. If you would like to receive free e-mail notification of the release of each new, bi-monthly update on the latest research findings from the Barna Group, you may subscribe to this free service at the Barna website ( Additional research-based resources are also available through this website.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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