Usable Knowledge A Link from Job Market Perceptions to Schoolwork How teens view the job market can derail their academic engagement — but supportive adults can temper that effect Posted April 9, 2018 By Leah Shafer We’ve all heard the refrain expressed by high school students frustrated by trigonometry or centuries-old literature: “When am I ever going to need this?” Families and teachers may be tempted to shrug off these sentiments. But teens’ perceptions of how their high school coursework connects to college and career — or doesn’t connect — may have more significance for their motivation and achievement than we think. New research from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Lynch School of Education at Boston College, and Medford Public Schools indicates that teens’ perceptions of the job market — whether or not they believe that jobs are scarce, or that their education will help them obtain a job — can significantly affect their decision to remain engaged in school. However, those beliefs aren’t necessarily fixed; this research also found that strong parental and school support can temper these beliefs in some circumstances, keeping students academically motivated. Maintain strong relationships with teenaged students, while acknowledging their valid concerns about securing a stable, profitable job in adulthood. Help teens develop a sense of how high school can connect to their personal goals and futures. For parents and educators, it’s a reminder to maintain strong relationships with teenaged students, while acknowledging their valid concerns about securing a stable, profitable job in adulthood. Supportive adults can help teens develop a sense of how high school can connect to their personal goals and futures. A Study on Young People’s Job Market Pessimism While other studies have explored the link between the labor market and high school graduation rates, this new research is the first to look at how young people's perceptions of the job market affects the way they study and plan while still in high school — habits that are key for success throughout adulthood. The researchers, led by developmental psychologist Nancy Hill, surveyed 624 ninth, 10th, and 11th graders in an economically and racially diverse public high school. Sixty-two percent of the students identified as Euro-American, 18 percent as African American, 10 percent as Asian American, and 9 percent as Latino. Half of the students’ parents had a bachelor’s degree or higher. The surveys asked students to gauge four measures: Job market pessimism: The degree to which students viewed the job market as unstable, and how unavailable they thought jobs were to workers Academic engagement: How mindful and planful students were about studying and completing coursework Parenting practices: How much students’ parents supported their learning, linked education to future success, promoted and scaffolded independence, and gave useful advice about school School-based relationships: How supported students felt by their teachers, and how much the students felt like they belonged at their school The Results Across the board, students who were more pessimistic about the job market were less academically engaged, found the researchers, who include the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Diamond Bravo and Mandy Savitz-Romer. But students were less pessimistic about the job market when their parents showed strong support for learning and gave good educational advice, and also when the students had stronger school-based relationships. (Parents linking education to future success and scaffolding independence were found to be ineffectual practices in these instances.) Digging deeper, the findings are more nuanced: For all students, strong school-based relationships led to a negative association between job market pessimism and academic engagement. Parenting practices were more relevant for Euro-Americans than for students of color. For African American students, only school-based relationships were significantly related to academic engagement — not parenting practices or job market pessimism. The association between job market pessimism and academic engagement was stronger for students whose parents did not have a bachelor’s degree than it was for students whose parents had completed college. The negative impact of job market pessimism on engagement was more acute for students with stronger family and school supports — a surprising finding, because these are the students whom we often assume are less at risk for losing academic motivation. The negative impact of job market pessimism on engagement was more acute for students with stronger family and school supports — the same students whom we often assume are less at risk for losing academic motivation. Takeaways for Families and Teachers Pay attention to the messages about the economy that young people hear. High school students are witnessing political candidates gripe about a lack of jobs, the media proclaim the end of upward mobility, and older siblings and friends struggle to find meaningful, stable work. These messages can add up — and suggest to young people that their post-graduate options will be slim. Recognize that that pessimism may impact learning. Just because students are showing up to class doesn’t mean they’re actively engaging and planning for their futures. If students believe that their schoolwork won’t help them in the long-run, they’re less likely to create meaningful educational experiences for themselves. Stay supportive... When high school students have families who encourage their learning — showing interest in their classes, praising their diligence, or giving advice about next steps, for example — they’re more likely to stay motivated. Students are also more likely to remain academically engaged and less pessimistic about the job market when their teachers and school administrators actively help them feel welcomed at school. ...While acknowledging that the state of the job market does matter. “Adolescents know that parents and people at school cannot solve broader, economic problems at a societal level,” write the researchers. Families and teachers can help teens consider job market volatility when selecting vocational goals, guiding them toward professions and skills that might better ensure success. Usable Knowledge Connecting education research to practice — with timely insights for educators, families, and communities Explore All Articles Related Articles Ed. Magazine Lessons Learned: Zid Mancenido, Ph.D.'22 What one alum learned about why students don't choose to become teachers Usable Knowledge Rethinking the Summer Internship How to create equitable summer opportunities to help all students bridge the gap between college and career. Education Now The Future of Work Experts discuss how the pandemic is reshaping jobs and careers and how education can respond.