Career or family? Teens who aim for both find success

"Nowadays people do want to pursue their goals in both domains, work and family," Bora Lee says. (Credit: Alan/Flickr)

Teenagers who say they are confident they can have both a successful career and a rewarding family life are more likely to feel successful as adults, new research shows.

“I’m really interested in career development, but also how that interacts with family life,” says Bora Lee, postdoctoral scholar in human development and family studies at Penn State. “I was interested in how adolescents weighed their goals within work and family domains.”


For a new report, researchers used selected records from a larger dataset initially collected for the Youth Development Study, which took place from 1988 through 2009 and included responses from 995 teenagers at ages 14 to 15 and again at 17 to 18 years old, to questions about anticipated future importance of career and family.

The study also asked about “self-efficacy beliefs”—a rating of a respondent’s certainty that she or he would achieve an aim.

Then, as adults aged 35 to 36 years old, the same people responded to questions regarding their “perceived success in work life” and “perceived success in family life.”

A dynamic process

Published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior, the study used a statistical approach to sort respondents into groups based on the relative importance they assigned to work and family goals, and their belief that they would achieve these goals.

The groups included, among others, subjects with work-focused goals and strong belief in their ability to achieve them, those with family-based goals with corresponding belief, and those whose goals included both family and career and who believed they would find success in both arenas. The analysis also indicated how likely people were to move from one group to another over time.

Many previous studies, implicitly assuming that goals do not change over time, include only a single snapshot of goal preferences, Lee says, but “it’s kind of a dynamic process, actually.”

Teens were likely to shift their family and work goals from ages 14 to 15 to ages 17 to 18—but one-third of those who expressed a comparable interest in both work and family goals kept that position over time.

Confidence is key

“The biggest group was people who placed relatively high importance on both work and family,” Lee says. “Almost half of the adolescents said that work and family are both important for me, and also that it is pretty highly likely that I can achieve these goals.”

Confidence in meeting expressed goals was a key component of the outcome, Lee says.

“Those who do show more confidence about achieving their goal were also more likely to achieve those goals in young adulthood. So those who placed a lot of importance on work and family and had very high confidence in those were more likely to report that they felt successful in work than other people.”

This group also reached higher education levels than those who placed high importance only on family-oriented goals but had only moderate confidence in achieving them.

Allies not competitors

There were significant differences among the five groups in terms of relationship status—married or cohabiting, or not—as adults.

Respondents’ career and family goals and beliefs at ages 14 to 15 and 17 to 18 were significantly associated with their relationship status in their mid-30s, with a smaller percentage of those who identified strongly work-oriented goals in adolescence married or cohabiting at 35 to 36 years old.

“Individuals tend to end up being more successful in their goal attainment when they are motivated to achieve in both the work and family domains,” the authors write. “In effect, work and family should be viewed as allies rather than as competitors.”

“Nowadays people do want to pursue their goals in both domains, work and family,” Lee says.

The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Mental Health funded the Youth Development Study, from which this study used data.

Source: Penn State