How are job opportunities in America changing, particularly for young adults? What role do families, schools, and local labor markets play in shaping young Americans’ dreams for the future, and the chances they’ll achieve those dreams? These are some of the questions that Kim A. Weeden, Sociology, asks in her work, which focuses on inequality and opportunity in the United States and other industrialized countries.
“I’ve always been interested in occupations and work, which are fundamental to our lives, not only in terms of income but also to our identities,” Weeden says. “Occupations are sources of prestige. They can affect our health, our children’s opportunities, our outlook on the world, and our politics in ways that are sometimes underappreciated.”
How Occupational Aspirations Are Formed
In one strand of research, Weeden is studying the social factors that influence young adults’ plans for the future. She and her collaborators are interested in how the type of community where kids grow up—urban or rural as well as the mix of occupations available in the community—affects their educational and career aspirations.
“For all the rhetoric about a global economy and a college-for-all ethos, there’s still a very strong match between place and plans,” Weeden says. “For example, boys who grow up in rural, blue-collar communities are much more likely to aspire to blue-collar occupations than boys who grow up in urban areas. And it’s not just about what their parents do for a living. It’s about the occupations the kids learn about through interactions with others in the community, the jobs they think will be available for them, and even the social value put on different jobs in the local cultures.”
Weeden and her team also found that kids who grow up in counties with high unemployment are less likely to be able to articulate an occupational plan. “You have to know about the range of options before you can choose among them,” she says. “A tangible effect of growing up in an economically depressed place is that you don’t have a sense of the options, let alone think that you can achieve them.”
Young people also differ in how much knowledge they have about the pathways into different occupations. “The generation of kids we’re studying has had enormous access to information, but many of them lack basic knowledge about how much education it takes to be a doctor, for example,” Weeden says. “Young adults who overestimate how much education an occupation needs are still very likely to go to college. But young adults who underestimate how much education their preferred occupation requires are very unlikely to go to college.”
One of the next steps is to understand whether place-based differences in aspirations can help explain why, in the United States, children’s chances of doing better than their parents differ so much across counties. “If teenagers in rural, blue-collar areas are aspiring to blue-collar jobs, what happens to their opportunities, their perceptions of fairness, and their political beliefs as these jobs disappear?”
The Gender Gap in STEM Careers
Another thread of Weeden’s research looks at how and why there are large gender differences in occupational plans, even though the goals of today’s young men and women—for a satisfying family life and meaningful careers—have grown more similar. In particular, Weeden and her team are interested in understanding the gender gap in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) occupational plans and college major completion.
“By age 16, the earliest age of our data, there are very large gender differences in whether young adults want to enter STEM occupations,” Weeden says. And occupational plans are the strongest predictor of majoring in STEM in college—even stronger than grades, test scores, high school mathematics and science courses, how students self-assess their math ability, or how much they value work versus family.
How could a 16-year-old’s career plan be a reliable predictor of what they’ll do at age 35 or 40? It may seem too early to judge. “It’s not that many adults enter the same occupation that they planned to enter as teenagers, although certainly some do,” Weeden says. “It’s that students’ occupational plans help form their short-term educational decisions—whether to commit to schooling, whether to enter college immediately, whether to enter and stay in STEM, and so forth.”
Inequalities: The Gender Gap
Many of Weeden’s other projects are focused on gender inequalities among adults. Together with former Cornell students, she is studying why the gender gap in wages hasn’t declined much in the last 20 years.
One answer lies in how employers structure and compensate work. “Especially in the professions and management, people who work long hours—50 or more per week—earn much more than people who just work full time, and this gap has increased dramatically in the past 20 years,” Weeden says. “Men are still much more likely to work long hours than women, in part because women still put far more hours into unpaid labor. So as a group, men benefited more from this shift in how work is compensated.”
Weeden says these shifts in the social organization of work have outweighed other changes that equalized men and women’s pay, such as women’s greater educational attainment. “It’s more than a story about individual attainment. It’s really a story about changes in how we think about work, how work is organized in firms, how employers compensate work, and how work interacts with family life and the division of labor in the household,” she explains.
“There’s growing attention in academic and public discourse to how the rules that govern markets and work are set up to favor those who are already advantaged.”
Inequalities: The Markets
Weeden tends to work on many projects at once, often with current and past students. One of the unifying features, though, is a desire to find answers to big-picture questions about inequality.
“There’s growing attention in academic and public discourse to how the rules that govern markets and work are set up to favor those who are already advantaged,” Weeden says. “I started working on this topic in grad school, with a project that looked at how the pay associated with particular occupations is affected by labor market protections, such as having to get a license or an education credential. More recently, my coauthor David Grusky at Stanford and I have expanded this to think about barriers in the market and how they shifted to advantage higher-skilled workers at the expense of lower-skilled workers.”
Weeden believes that some amount of inequality is unavoidable, even necessary. But, she says, “We’re at a point where inequality far exceeds what is necessary to create incentives, and it’s threatening both economic growth and democracy.”
Also, not all inequality is created equal. “We should be deeply concerned by inequalities that are based on race, gender, or the social class into which one is born,” Weeden says.
Cornell and the Center for the Study of Inequality
Weeden was attracted to Cornell partly because of the Center for the Study of Inequality (CSI), which she now directs. “The center is a wonderful intellectual community of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students in the Minor in Inequality Studies,” Weeden says. “I think CSI has been so successful because at Cornell, the status boundaries between faculty and students are fairly permeable. Students are encouraged to work with faculty on research projects, and they bring fabulous energy and ideas.”
The same is true for disciplinary boundaries, Weeden says. “Many places talk the talk about interdisciplinarity. Cornell walks the walk. Still, you have to have strong disciplines before you can have strong interdisciplinary work, and Cornell offers this, too.”
Under Weeden’s directorship, CSI recently received a $10 million grant from The Atlantic Philanthropies to support research on inequality and to increase its impact. “This grant will be truly transformative for the center,” Weeden says, “and I am extremely grateful not only to The Atlantic Philanthropies, but also to the College of Arts and Sciences and the Office of the Provost for helping CSI get to this point.”