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The 2018 PISA report: Part 1

By Mark Dean, Research and Data Officer at AATIS

In late 2019, the OECD released Dream Jobs? Teenagers Career Aspirations and the Future of Work, the report detailing findings of its 2018 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA). Every three years since 2000, PISA has tested young people in participating countries, including Australia, with real-world problems to capture the levels of their numeracy and literacy skills and gain insight into how aligned these competences are with labour market demand and industry development. This has provided governments, educators and policymakers with a snapshot of how young people are envisioning their future careers and whether their aspirations align with labour market trends and the general direction of a changing world of work in the global economy.

In 2018 a total of 79 countries participated in the PISA study. The 2018 PISA process was also unique in that it built on data gathered from a complementary OECD study of 20,000 primary school children’s views about where they saw themselves post-schooling. This allowed PISA researchers to compare the career aspirations and expectations of thousands of young people across the 41 countries and economies that participated in both the 2000 and 2018 surveys.

Young people’s career aspirations are often narrow, unrealistic and distorted by gender and social background.  What’s more, there is evidence to suggest young people have limited awareness of the ways in which automation is likely to change work.

What have the findings in Dream Jobs? told us about the way young people are envisioning their futures? Reflecting on their data, two of the PISA report’s authors, Andrew Schleicher and Anthony Mann blogged that “Young people’s career aspirations are often narrow, unrealistic and distorted by gender and social background.  What’s more, there is evidence to suggest young people have limited awareness of the ways in which automation is likely to change work.” Further to this analysis, we can break down the major PISA findings into the clear – and intersecting – issues they present as we enter the 2020s. In Part 1 we discuss problematic gender norms and socio-economic status; in Part 2 we reflect on the impact of technological change.


Overall, the career pathways that young people picture themselves pursuing are divided along gender lines. PISA 2018 showed that even when it comes to high performance in maths or science, boys expressed greater interest than girls in a science or engineering career. Among high-performing girls in these subjects, the greatest interest was in health-related careers and industries – the reverse to what boys pictures themselves doing.

What this suggests is that looking forward over the next several decades, girls expect to pursue careers in industries that already contain a disproportionate number of women, and the same can be said for the careers in industries to which young boys aspire. This is a concern where the efforts of various governments and organisations to develop more equitable labour market and social policies are likely to continue fracturing along issues like pay inequality and other forms of workplace discrimination. There is potential for such fissures to create further barriers to women aspiring to careers in which they may be interested, were it not for the highly gendered nature of the industries where these careers can be pursued.

Socio-economic status

Similar impressions to the impact of a gender divide on career pathways can be gleaned from the PISA report with which to identify a divide between those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, and the most privileged backgrounds. Disadvantaged young people, even when showing high academic performance comparable to their more privileged counterparts are nearly 4 times more likely to expect that they will work in professions where a university qualification is not needed.

This particular divide has the potential for negative impacts in several ways. It is likely that disadvantaged young people are members of communities that may be struggling to recover from economic shocks that have devastated the manufacturing and services industries on which these communities have depended for employment opportunity over many decades. In large part, the jobs that have been automated out of existence or offshored won’t be returning which is likely to have severed viable pathways for young people to pursue careers in trades related to these industries.

Furthermore, in communities where aspirations to university may not be institutionalised and therefore not represent a considerable option, the career options for young people may appear far more limited than they are in reality. As a result, most boys from disadvantaged backgrounds continue to expect that they will work in a career that is already undergoing rapid decline due to automation and/or deindustrialisation.

But it is possible the reverse of this scenario holds true in privileged communities as well. Not all high-performing young people from privileged backgrounds need necessarily be destined for a university education and the career pathways this implies. It is important that the relevance of career pathway options be made clear to all young people. The career expectations of young people from privileged backgrounds may just as well be shaped by the influences of those around them that believe university provides the only viable future for them, when in fact this is not the case.

A further issue is that the PISA 2018 report did not have scope to address a recent study by the Brookings Institution that is nevertheless important: this report showed that white-collar professional jobs are much more vulnerable to Artificial Intelligence than has been previously thought. Thus, rapid changes in technology may prove that it is no longer beneficial for the education trajectories of privileged young people to continue nudging them towards high-income, high-skill jobs – the jobs may simply not be there. Nor may it necessarily be suitable to place a ceiling on the aspirations of underprivileged young people that locks them into a career pathway at the opposite end of the employment spectrum.

What can be done?

The PISA 2018 report has shown the already entrenched mismatch between the career aspirations and expectations of many young people around the world and the real-life dynamics of labour markets. Broadening opportunity through experience is one crucial pillar in efforts to guide the expectations and aspirations of young people if we are to avoid structuring pathways with reference to genders or postcodes; or preparing them for jobsets that may be gone by the time they finish school.

Read Part 2 for more information about the impact of Technological Change, and what can be done to combat some of these issues.