What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? Educational and Occupational Aspirations in 1950s and 1960s Helsinki

(In Finnish: Mikä sinusta tulee isona? Koulutus- ja ammattisuunnitelmat 1950–60-luvun Helsingissä)

Sinikka Selin


Young people’s educational decisions and entrance into the labour market are constantly topical issues, perhaps partly because one can only guess what the future labour market will be like. Educational and occupational decisions have wide and far-reaching consequences in an individual’s life. These decisions are influenced by the social structure, but at the same time they shape social development.

The study at hand deals with Finnish young people’s educational and occupational aspirations in the rapidly changing society of the 1950s and 1960s. The study analyses and demonstrates how gender, family background and educational history influenced what the young people perceived as possible, desirable and/or likely to happen in their lives.

The sample group for the study consisted of 15–17-year-olds who were finishing mandatory schooling in the capital of Finland, Helsinki. The main source material comprised vocational guidance counselling forms that the young people had completed. Documents for 1,350 young people were sampled from three periods (1950, 1960 and 1968–1971). The data were analysed with descriptive statistics to form a general view of the phenomenon. To explain the observations more deeply, smaller groups and individuals were analysed.

In Helsinki, the diverse economic structure and ample schooling options at the time offered many alternatives. The young people’s opportunities and willingness to seize upon them were, however, constrained by many factors. The selective school system divided the pupils into two cohorts when the children were 10 years old. The family’s social class was strongly related to this division. The mostly middle-class young people in theoretically oriented secondary schools had wider education and employment options to choose from than the young people in more practically oriented elementary schools. The family’s economic, cultural and social capital outlined and channelled the young people’s perceptions of education and working life as well as their attitudes towards the different options available to them. Further, their plans strictly adhered to a gendered division of trades.

The environment in which the young people were considering their future was being revolutionised by many changes: the transformation of economic and occupational structures, rapidly developing technology, a rising standard of living, an increasing emphasis on occupational skills, improvements in social security, and married women becoming more and more frequently employed. The significance and demand for formal education increased substantially in the 1950s and 1960s, and both secondary school and occupational education became more popular.

Work was central to young people’s aspirations in the early 1950s, but during the next two decades it gave way to education. Vocational guidance counselling went through a change as well, and here the young people’s own opinions gained more importance. As part of the slowly emerging individualisation, young people functioned more as independent actors instead of being entirely dependent on the family. The rapid and forceful societal change expanded the scope of the young people’s educational and occupational aspirations both qualitatively and quantitatively. At the same time, it increased young people’s uncertainty regarding the future.

Keywords: vocational guidance counselling, young people, education, choice of a career, aspiration, Helsinki, 1950s, 1960s, societal change, selective school system, social class, gender