The greatest influence on the career ambitions of today’s children isn’t their teachers, parents, books, or even self-discovered passions. Instead, their ambitions are being primarily shaped by television, movies, and YouTube.
A joint study conducted by the New York Life Insurance Company and Fatherly–an online parenting resource for men–recently surveyed over 1,000 kids under the age of 12 in hopes of understanding their career ambitions as well as the motivations behind them.
The study found that the most desired job for children in the U.S. is doctor, followed by veterinarian, though both professions inspired significantly more interest from young girls than boys. The next most desired jobs, police officer and firefighter, were primarily chosen by boys. The fifth most sought-after career was scientist, which saw nearly equal interest from both.
Overall, 56.6% of those that aspired to Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) careers were girls.
“In many respects this report is a lens into how we are raising our kids,” said Fatherly cofounder and chief content officer Simon Isaacs. “What it shows, from my perspective, is a significant exposure gap on both sides. We’re exposing girls to very different things than what we’re exposing boys to, and vice versa.”
Isaacs explains that the discrepancy between career ambitions among the gender groups is the result of the ongoing distinction between what society deems male and female childhood entertainment products.
Today’s most popular children’s characters, for example, include Paw Patrol, a series featuring male police dogs and firefighters, and Bob the Builder, a children’s show about a male engineer. Police officer, firefighter, and engineer are three of the most popular career choices for boys, but were seldom selected by girls.
“In general, outside of scientist, there’s very little gender equity within job preference, and I think that’s an issue,” said Isaacs. “In a perfect world this would be a pretty boring chart, because you’d basically have 50-50 across the board, but the discrepancy between boys and girls is very stark in almost every category.”
Isaacs explains that as the father of both a 3-year-old daughter and 3-week-old son, he hopes both aspire to careers that best fit their talents and interests without being limited by the boundaries of traditional gender norms. According to the research, the most effective way to expose children to new interest is through media and entertainment.
“The influence of parents is everywhere,” said Isaacs, adding that other influences, such as entertainment, school, and toys, are still chosen and provided by parents. “With that said, entertainment appears to be having a more direct impact on our kids.”
The most interesting insight from the research, according to Isaacs, helps underscore that point. Though the survey questionnaires never referenced any specific children’s character or program, 25% of all respondents went out of their way to add one specific name, which they believe has had the greatest influence on their child’s career ambitions: Doc McStuffins.
The animated children’s show centers around a black 6-year-old named Dottie “Doc” McStuffins, who cares for stuffed animals and toys in her playhouse clinic.
“What we’re seeing is that influential children’s programming doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an ‘educational experience.’ That’s the case with Doc McStuffins,” he said. “To see so many children respond so positively, and so many girls want to be doctors and veterinarians and pursue STEM careers as a direct result, that has to be applauded.”
“You can get kids excited about almost anything based on the way that you frame it, the way you create the experience, the way that you create the engagement,” said Emmy award-winning children’s television personality and STEM education advocate Steve Spangler. “Doc McStuffins does it perfectly, and you can see the influence it’s having on kids.”
Having spent 20 years engaging children in science-based education through online entertainment, Television appearances and educational toys, Spangler believes there’s a few traits that make the latest cohort of children unique. He explains that 20 years ago kids were unable to pursue self-guided exploration beyond what was directly in front of them.
“I think YouTube specifically has a tremendous impact on this, because before we were limited to teachers and parents and whatever else was in our town or neighborhood,” he said. “Now we suddenly have this window into the outside world, where children can explore and expand their horizons.”
For example, Spangler says his 15-year-old recently took an interest in digital animation after discovering a documentary about Pixar Animation Studios on YouTube. “I thought, ‘Oh my god, wow, how did my kid even get down that rabbit hole?'” he said. “You can see, as a parent, how he’s starting to explore his passion.”
Spangler suggests that today’s children are more inquisitive and curious than past generations because of that ability to explore and find answers for themselves.
“Kids in that age bracket are asking more meaningful questions about career opportunities than I’ve ever seen before,” he said. “I’m seeing kids ask ‘why’ questions, like, ‘Why do I need to learn that?’ or ‘Why am I doing this?’ We didn’t ask that when I was growing up.”
This inquisitive generation of children, according to Spangler, is hungry for answers, but the research suggests that the responses they receive still cut along gender-specific lines.
Instead, Spangler says parents should seek to proactively expose their children to any potential area of interest, whether they conform to gender norms or not. Doing so will allow children to explore a wider breadth of potential opportunities, and make future career decisions with a deeper understanding of all available options.
“Experiences aren’t gender specific, so if we start introducing our young kids to experiences that will help them ask more questions on their own and engage at a higher level, than they’ll be equipped to make better decisions about their future careers,” he said.