The importance of “don’t know”

I’m in the early stages of analysing data from the Youth Questionnaire of Understanding Society to explore the role of area in shaping young people’s occupational aspirations. Unlike some waves of the British Household Panel Survey which preceded it, Understanding Society has fairly limited data on young people’s occupational aspirations. Whereas 12 of the 18 waves of the BHPS included a question on the Youth Questionnaire about the jobs that young people want to do when they left full time education, this is only the case for the first of the two existing waves of Understanding Society. Likewise, whereas 8 waves of the BHPS included questions about why young people aspired to particular jobs, Understanding Society lacks this data. Nonetheless, Understanding Society benefits from a much larger sample size (around four times more respondents to the Youth Questionnaire than in the BHPS), its data is more recent, as is also linkable to the Output Area Classification, which allows me to look at whether, and how, aspirations vary between different types of area.

It being early days, I’m currently just looking at the properties of my outcome variable and a selection of independent variables that I’ll be including in my model. A quick recode to map aspirations onto the 9 categories in the SOC2010 occupational classification, followed by the most basic of descriptive statistics, threw up a really interesting consideration: the importance of “don’t know”:

usoc-aspirations-soc2010Data from 4899 responses to the Understanding Society Wave 1 Youth Questionnaire (UKDA SN 6614)

It’s easy to dismiss “don’t know” as a response category of little interest in analysis. In the context of my research, however, young people who don’t know what job they want to do when they finish full time education are of very real interest, quite apart from the fact that they account for over 15% of the sample here. The intensive phase of my research identified three broad dimensions to the way in which young people understand and talk about their occupational aspirations: materiality, specificity, and agency. The second of these dimensions distinguishes between young people who have a clear idea of a job (or a range of specific jobs) they’d like to do, and those who either don’t know what they want to do or have an abstract idea of the sorts of work they’d like to be involved in. I found, among the young people I interviewed, that those with higher educational attainment tended to have less specific ideas, or no idea, of the jobs they wanted to do (and would therefore probably be coded as “don’t know”), while those with lower educational attainment tended to have more specific aspirations.

So it seems that although the data in Understanding Society is limited in what it can tell us about how young people think about their aspirations, distinguishing between those who do know and those who don’t know what job they’d like to do when they finish full time education could go some way towards identifying how area shapes at least one element – specificity – of young people’s conceptions of their aspirations. For me, this was a first-hand lesson in the importance of interpreting “don’t know” in survey analysis.

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