The Effect of Social Class Background on Adolescent Career Development

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The Effect of Social Class Background on Adolescent Career Development:

A Social Cognitive Analysis

The impact of an individual’s social class background on career choice has led researchers to describe the significance of socioeconomic status (SES) within career development, stating, “If one were permitted only a single variable with which to predict an individual’s occupational status, it would surely be the SES of the individual’s family” (Schulenberg, Vondracek, and Crouter, 1984, p. 130). At both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, an individual’s social class of origin is of great and lasting importance to ultimate career selection. And while the impact of social class on career is salient throughout the lifespan (Brown, Fukunaga, Umemoto, & Wicker, 1996), it is a particularly crucial factor to examine in the career development of adolescents. At the cusp of their career development process, adolescents therefore become aware of their place in society’s social class hierarchy, and begin forming a mental list of the occupations that will enable them to achieve the social class standing to which they aspire or wish to maintain. Additionally, various class-related external pressures, supports, and barriers emerge at this time to affect their overall career choice (Rice, 1999).

This manuscript focuses on the developmental phenomenon wherein adolescents’ socioeconomic resources, as well as their subjective interpretation of socioeconomically “appropriate” careers, influence and ultimately limit their perceived career options and occupational goals. This phenomenon will be explained from the context of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (1977), as well as Lent, Brown, and Hackett’s Social Cognitive Career Theory (1994). Both theories are effective in explaining how vicarious learning and self-efficacy may explain this developmental phenomenon. However, both theories also lack the content that could explain how the process of adolescent identity formation may play a crucial role in the impact of social class on perceived career options and career goals. Implications and suggestions for future research will also be discussed.

Adolescents, Career, and Social Class

Adolescence is a particularly pivotal time for career exploration and choice (Nurmi, 1991; Rice, 1999). This is a period that emphasizes the sense of belonging to a particular social group, and adolescents possess an intensified need to belong to a group and maintain a source of identity among their peers (Rice, 1999). Thus, an adolescent’s “Social Class Worldview”, which incorporates the adolescent’s awareness of his/her position in an economic hierarchy (Liu, Ali, Soleck, Hopps, Dunston, & Pickett, 2004), is a particularly critical factor in the process of choosing a career. The adolescent’s social class worldview and interpretation of socioeconomically appropriate careers may influence his/her perceived options (Gottfredson, 1981). In addition to this internal process whereby one’s worldview affects possible career goals, social class also introduces external pressures, supports, and barriers related to career choice (Rice, 1999). And finally, depending on his/her cultural background and available resources, social mobility may seem more or less an option. All these factors have a cumulative effect, impacting the individual’s level of education, chosen and attained occupation, and ultimate social class status as an adult (Langston, 2001). It should be noted that this process exists for adolescents from both high and low social class backgrounds. High school students of all backgrounds are often deprived of the opportunity to consider a number of career options in which they could become successful and fulfilled, because of their own and others’ perceptions of what may be appropriate for them given their social class.

Research has established that young people are aware of their social class (Lien, Friedstad, & Klepp, 2001; Tudor, 1971, cited in Liu et al., 2004; West, Sweeting, & Speed, 2001) and it has also shown that social class affects adolescents in a number of important ways. These range from physical health factors (Goodman, 1999), to mental health factors (Waschbusch, Sellers, LeBlanc, & Kelley, 2003), to intellectual and academic performance (Croizet & Claire, 1998). Literature also supports that social class and SES affect adolescents’ career development and career choices at both the internal and external level. Studies have demonstrated that an adolescent’s social class may affect the types of careers and levels of education to which they aspire (Kelly, 1989; MacKay & Miller, 1982; Schulenberg, Vondracek, & Crouter, 1984). One study showed that adolescents who believe that there are a variety of possible careers open to them, and who also would consider a variety of careers, are likely to possess a number of characteristics, one of which is coming from a middle to high SES background (McDonald & Jessell, 1992). In addition, Cook, Church, Ajanaku, Shadish, Kim, & Cohen (1996) found that inner-city boys as young as the second grade have already developed ideas about what occupations are realistic for them. These boys, in comparison to boys from more privileged backgrounds, tended to report a larger gap between the careers they would like to pursue, and the careers they expect to enter (Cook et al., 1996).

Another important factor in career choice is the extent to which adolescents engage in “planning” and “evaluation”. Adolescents from different social classes may have different views or expectations concerning the length of time it takes to successfully realize career goals. Specifically, some studies showing that upper class adolescents tend to form goals and an orientation that extends further into the future (Nurmi, 1991; O’Rand & Ellis, 1974). This is not an indication that lower-class adolescents lack the ability to think more long-term; future orientation is a complex variable, and an individual’s orientation to the future depends in part on situational variables (Trommsdorff, 1983).

The notion that an adolescent’s awareness of social class can influence the occupation they choose to pursue is significant in itself. Yet social class and/or SES may also affect the number of careers that adolescents perceive as options at all (Cook et al., 1996; McDonald & Jessell, 1992). One study found that prestigious careers were seen as more “suitable” by adolescents from high SES backgrounds (Poole & Cooney, 1985), thereby making them more likely to ultimately choose such careers. This process of determining suitable or class-appropriate careers begins early in life, as demonstrated by one study of elementary-school children, where boys from higher SES backgrounds reported more prestigious career expectations than boys from low SES backgrounds (Malone & Shope, 1978). And this pattern extends into older adolescents and even post-college students, which lends support to the idea that the social class of origin continues to remain important throughout the lifespan. In one study on the factors motivating students to pursue law or business school, many of the participants stated their desire to provide for their future families, such as the financial ability to send their children to private schools (Schleef, 2000). In order to fulfill such an economic goal, these students have already limited their potential list of occupations. According to Gottfredson, adolescents become aware of the prestige level of certain jobs, and develop preferences and ideas of what is “realistic” partly depending on how well the prestige level of an occupation fits with the adolescent’s existing social class (Gottfredson, 1981; 2002). In general, literature states that adolescents from a higher social class background aspire to a more prestigious pool of possible occupations than adolescents from lower social class backgrounds (Gottfredson, 1981; Langston, 2001; Poole & Cooney, 1985).

Overall, the literature suggests that adolescents from all social class backgrounds perceive a circumscribed (Gottfredson, 1981) list of occupations. As our society limits the number of career options which are “appropriate” for each social class, so too do we limit the options and subsequent career goals of adolescents. It is important for future research to continue examining this phenomenon more fully. One way to accomplish this is by turning to a major theoretical model.

Theoretical Analysis

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (1986) provides a useful theoretical framework for examining the phenomenon wherein social class affects adolescents’ career options and goals. Both his original theory as well as the more specific “Social Cognitive Career Theory” developed by Lent, Brown, and Hackett (1994), offer important insight into the mechanisms that cause social class background to affect career choice in adolescents. Both theories possess strengths and weaknesses in their ability to explain this developmental phenomenon.

Social Cognitive Theory.

Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (1986) is an extraordinarily important theory that has played a large role in the study of career development and exploration. Thus, it is an appropriate theory to use when examining why adolescents’ social class background effectively limits their perceived career options and career goals.

Strengths. In attempting to explain this particular phenomenon, one strength of Social Cognitive Theory is its attention to vicarious learning. A hallmark of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory is its emphasis on the process of learning through models (Thomas, 2005). While the exact process of vicarious learning is not totally understood, Bandura’s theory offers some details on contributing factors (Thomas, 2005). Much of Bandura’s work on vicarious learning focuses on the process that leads individuals to imitate another’s behavior. Emulating the career choices of another is certainly a more complex issue than simple “imitation”, but another strength of Social Cognitive theory is its ability to explain more complex behaviors. Specifically, Bandura asserts that complex behaviors are not learned by step-by-step imitation of smaller behaviors. Rather, the individual learns new, complex behavior in large chunks at a time, or even in its entirety (Thomas, 2005). This is helpful to the understanding of how an individual may “imitate” another’s career choice, because occupational selection is clearly a complex behavior which does not lend itself to small, discrete steps.

The primary way in which Bandura’s theory of vicarious learning helps to explain the phenomenon of social class and career choice is through its emphasis on the “nature of the models” (Thomas, 2005, p. 155). While reinforcement and punishment are important predictors of whether or not an individual will imitate another’s behavior, the extent to which the model is seen as “similar” is also an important factor. This points to the fact that Bandura’s theory does account for the influence of contextual factors on developmental phenomena. For example, in Bandura’s Principles of Behavior Modification (1969), he stresses the importance of examining the effects of modeling in a naturalistic setting, where the gender, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity of the “role model” are acknowledged as factors that have the ability to influence the degree to which individuals learn and imitate their behavior. This is particularly relevant in the process of emulating another person’s career path, where the role model’s social class background may play a crucial role in determining whether an adolescent will incorporate the role model’s occupation in his/her list of perceived options.

Overall, vicarious learning and role modeling seems a logical explanation for the fact that adolescents’ social class backgrounds result in a limitation of their perceived career options to only those that “fit” their current social class status. High-school students, for example, may have already experienced several years of directly observing parents and other family members engaging in occupations that correspond to a specific social class. Thus, adolescents from higher social class backgrounds may have only learned vicariously about careers in law, business, and medicine, to name a few. Adolescents from lower social class backgrounds may have had similarly limited opportunities for vicarious occupational learning.

In addition to vicarious learning, another strength of Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory when explaining social class and career development is the concept of Self-Efficacy (Thomas, 2005). This construct, defined as a person’s belief in his/her ability to produce a given attainment or outcome (Bandura, 1997), has natural applications to the field of vocational psychology. In fact, perhaps more than any other component of Social Cognitive theory, Bandura’s theory of self-efficacy (1997) has already contributed to the study of career, providing the basis for a significant line of research relating beliefs to career development (Betz, 2004, 2006; Brown & Lent, 2006; Diegelman & Subich, 2002; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994). There are four major sources of self-efficacy according to Bandura (1982; 1986; 1997): mastery experience, vicarious experience, social persuasion, and physiological state. The role of vicarious learning has already been discussed. Another of these sources with the potential to explain the developmental phenomenon in question is “mastery experiences”. An individual’s social class background may influence the number and types of activities that could have implications for career choice. For example, an adolescent from a lower social class background may have fewer successful/mastery experiences in tasks related to “upper-class” occupations, resulting in lower self-efficacy for those careers. The adolescent may possess the necessary skills to pursue such an occupation, but eliminates it from his/her list of possibilities due to lack of self-efficacy. Verbal persuasion, another component of self-efficacy according to Bandura (1997), is similarly applicable to the study of career development and social class. It seems likely that social class background would affect the types of verbal messages adolescents receive. This may help to explain why adolescents perceive occupational possibilities limited to their social class background. If they hear verbal persuasion only for “class-appropriate” occupations, their self-efficacy for a broader array of occupations once again suffers, ultimately resulting in a narrower list of career possibilities.

Weakenesses. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory clearly possesses many components that have the potential power to explain why social class background affects the adolescent career circumscription process and limits perceived career options. However, there are additional aspects of this developmental phenomenon which Social Cognitive Theory seems ill-equipped to explain. Most notably, there is a lack of emphasis on psychological identity development. While there is obviously a cognitive component to Bandura’s theory, it is an inadequate means of explaining the unique psychological process wherein an individual identifies with and relates to a given social class group. Throughout the developmental process, individuals gain not only a psychological self, but a social self as well (Ruble, Alvarez, Bachman, Cameron, Fuligni, Coll, & Ree, 2004). This social self includes an individual’s social class grouping, or “social class identity”, which incorporates a number of important components, ranging from a parent’s income level, to what they wear, to how they speak. In addition, adolescents in particular are in the throes of a critical period of identity development, and their emerging self concept begins to interact with their occupational concept (Vondracek, Lerner, & Schulenberg, 1986). This early interaction between identity and career is developmentally appropriate, and according to Erikson (1968), part of an adolescent’s successful transition into adulthood includes choosing a career or vocational identity. Therefore, the development of an adolescent’s social class identity and the development of their vocational identity may occur in tandem. This process could result in the selective inclusion of only those career possibilities in which vocational and social class identity are compatible. Despite its cognitive elements, Bandura’s theory fails to provide a meaningful explanation for the ways in which an adolescent’s social class identity may lay the groundwork for circumscribing their career possibilities into a limited list of class-appropriate occupational goals.

Implications/Suggestions for future Research. Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (1986) has the potential to successfully explain how an adolescent’s social class background may limit his/her perceived career options and career goals. Future research should closely examine vicarious learning in this process. Specifically, researchers should include social class background as a demographic variable of interest when conducting research using role models to explain the phenomenon of adolescents’ potentially limited career options and goals.

While research does support the notion that self-efficacy affects one’s occupational goals (Betz, 2004, 2006; Brown & Lent, 2006; Diegelman & Subich, 2002; Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994), less seems known regarding the mechanisms through which social class may affect career self-efficacy. The studies cited in the review of literature fail to address mastery experiences and verbal persuasion in their explanation for social class’s profound impact on perceived career options. Future research should systematically examine the four sources of self-efficacy and how they are affected by one’s social class background.

And finally, it may be necessary to turn to another theory in order to more effectively explain the role of identity and specifically social class identity in the formation of career options and goals. Erikson’s theoretical variations on the psychoanalytic tradition (Thomas, 2005) may provide a helpful framework for examining the role of social class in overall identity formation, the process of career-specific identity formation, and the intersection of the two.

Social-Cognitive-Career Theory.

Lent, Brown, and Hackett’s Social Cognitive Career Theory (1994) is an extension of Bandura’s original theory that specifically addresses the career development process as an application of Social Cognitive Theory. This model emphasizes the process through which individuals develop interests, how people make choices about pursuing a given career, and how and why people perform and persist in given occupations and educational settings (Gysbers, Heppner, & Johnston, 2003).

Strengths. The primary strength of Social Cognitive Career Theory (SCCT) is that it enables researchers to examine external, contextual factors that affect the career development process (Gysbers, Heppner, & Johnston, 2003). Indeed, some important studies have used Lent, Brown, and Hackett’s (1994) model to examine sociocultural factors such as race and ethnicity (Flores & O’Brien, 2002; Hackett & Byers, 1996). However, significantly fewer have examined social class using SCCT as a framework, despite the fact that social class variables fit easily within the model. The SCCT model includes two ways of examining sociocultural determinants of career development: person-input variables and contextual variables. Both of these types of variables indirectly affect career choice behavior through their influence on learning experiences, self-efficacy, outcome expectancies, and interests (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994).

Person-Input variables are sources of individual differences that are, for the most part, unchangeable characteristics an individual is born with, such as race, ethnicity, and gender. Researchers could conceptualize social class as a person-input variable, making it possible to look at external forces and opportunity structures that may either help or hinder an adolescent’s perceived career options. Contextual determinants, on the other hand, go beyond an individual’s person-input characteristics to include the individual’s perception and appraisal of those characteristics and circumstances (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994; 2000). This emphasizes the fact that the individual has an active role in interpreting potential supports and barriers that result from various contextual inputs (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994; 2000). This element of SCCT allows for the inclusion of an individual’s subjective perception of their social class background as one example of a contextual determinant. Thus, a major strength of this theory is its ability to capture both internal and external socioeconomic factors that may influence an adolescent’s decision to consider a given career.

Weakness/Suggestions for Future Research. Overall, Lent, Brown, & Hackett’s SCCT (1994; 2000) provides a very useful framework for examining the effects of social class and Social Class Worldview on adolescent career choices. It allows for the consideration of 1) Societal supports and barriers associated with social class identification (a person-input variable), and 2) The adolescent’s perception of those supports and barriers (a contextual determinant). In both instances, social class has the potential to significantly shape an adolescent’s perceived career options. However, due to its roots in Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, SCCT possesses a similar weakness in that it fails to acknowledge social class identity, or the power of simply feeling connected to a given social class. That sense of group identity and affiliation with a certain class may be an important predictor of career choice for some adolescents. Once again, Erikson’s emphasis on identity development may provide a useful compliment to the Social Cognitive tradition in the future examination of this developmental phenomenon.


The process of career selection is an important task for adolescents of all social class backgrounds. Both psychological and external socioeconomic supports and barriers frequently limit adolescents from choosing or even considering a number of occupations in which they could be happy and fulfilled. Bandura’s highly influential Social Cognitive Theory (1986), as well as the more specific Social Cognitive Career Theory (Lent, Brown, & Hackett, 1994), both do a commendable job of explaining this phenomenon, despite a lack of attention to social class identity. Combining Bandura’s work with that of another prominent theorist such as Erikson could direct future researchers towards a more thorough understanding of this phenomenon.

In a recent issue of APA’s Monitor on Psychology, an article appeared entitled “The theory heard ‘round the world”. The theory was Bandura’s Social-Cognitive Theory (1986), and its effects have indeed been global. The principles in that theory have been used in Mexican soap operas in order to model for viewers the benefits of safe, protected sex, and in African nations to raise awareness about HIV and how it is contracted (Smith, 2002). Bandura’s conceptualization of vicarious learning and self-efficacy could be just as effectively utilized in the study of career development. While on a different scale, the possible implications of limiting career options are far-reaching for our society as well. By limiting privileged adolescents to privileged careers, and lower social class adolescents to working class careers, we also maintain a social class hierarchy where it is often the case that the rich stay rich, and the poor stay poor.


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