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Stats in Brief October 2020 NCES 2021-056
U.S. Department of Education
A Publication of the National Center for Education Statistics at IES

Statistics in Brief publications present descriptive data in tabular formats to provide useful information to a broad audience, including members of the general public. They address simple and topical issues and questions. They do not investigate more complex hypotheses, account for interrelationships among variables, or support causal inferences.

We encourage readers who are interested in more complex questions and in-depth analysis to explore other National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) resources, including publications, online data tools, and public- and restricted-use datasets. See and references noted in the body of this document for more information. For readers interested in additional information about the survey from which the findings were drawn and the analyses underlying the findings including more detailed data tables and related standard errors, please see the “View Technical Notes” link at


  • Emily Kelly and Laura Holian
    AnLar, LLC

Project Officer

  • Elise Christopher
    National Center for Education Statistics

When students make decisions about their future occupations, they may consider many factors including their general interests, the amount of education and types of skills needed, work culture, potential salary, and other benefits. This Statistics in Brief report provides basic descriptive statistics on young adults’ expectations about their future education, employment, and earnings. The Brief begins by examining the highest level of education young adults expected to attain and what job these young adults expected to have at age 30. It then presents data on young adults’ expected yearly earnings at age 30, both overall and by their education and employment expectations. Finally, the Brief provides information on how young adults valued the importance of certain job factors compared to salary.

Research shows that higher levels of education are generally associated with higher employment rates and higher earnings (McFarland et al. 2018). Among 25- to 34-year olds in 2017, those with a bachelor’s or higher degree had the highest employment rate at 86 percent compared to all other levels of educational attainment (McFarland et al. 2018). Among 25- to 34-year-olds who worked full year and full time in 2016, median annual earnings were $25,400 for those who did not complete high school, $31,800 for those whose highest educational attainment was a high school credential, $50,000 for those whose highest education was a bachelor’s degree, and $64,100 for those with a master’s degree or higher (McFarland et al. 2018).

While education level is associated with higher earnings and higher rates of employment, the occupation workers pursue is also related to earnings (Carnevale and Cheah 2018). Regardless of educational attainment, earnings vary widely across occupational fields (Carnevale, Rose, and Cheah 2013). For example, among 2007–08 bachelor’s degree recipients who were employed full-time in 2012, the yearly median salary was $45,000; however, this salary varied by occupational field. Bachelor’s degree recipients employed in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields had the highest median yearly earnings at $61,000, while bachelor’s degree recipients employed in business support or administrative assistance had the lowest median yearly earnings at $34,500 (Cataldi, Staklis, and Woo 2018).

Research suggests that work values and the importance of different work styles are tied to the current economic environment, family economic resources, and life stage. For example, an uncertain economic climate may accompany preferences for greater job security and a preference for high income may accompany a life stage with significant family responsibilities (Kalleberg and Marsden 2019). Individual preferences for work styles and non-material benefits also can vary by occupation and industry. When asked to rate the importance of achievement, independence, relationships, and support at work, STEM and healthcare workers valued 2 achievement and independence equally, but healthcare workers valued relationships and support more than STEM workers (Carnevale et al. 2012).

The analyses presented in this Brief fill a gap in the literature by providing information on young adults’ expectations about their future earnings and work values. Understanding young adults’ expectations for salary, the highest level of education they expect to complete, and their work-style preferences (on a team, as a leader, autonomy, work-life balance) by expected job industry can help high school and college counselors and educators prepare students for the workforce and can help employers better attract and recruit their employees of the future.

The Second Follow-up conducted in 2016 emphasized the transition of the cohort to postsecondary education—both baccalaureate and subbaccalaureate—and the workforce. At that point in time, most sample members were around 21 or 22 years old. Sample members responded to questions about their educational attainment expectations, what job they expected to have at age 30, their expected yearly earnings at age 30, and the importance of factors other than salary when considering a job. Most sample members will be 30 years old in or around 2025.

The analyses presented in this report are limited to the 98 percent of sample members in 2016 who planned to work at age 30, whether or not they reported an occupation they expected to have at that age. Figure 1 shows the percentages of the cohort that planned to be working at age 30 and if they had a planned occupation. Excluding those not planning to be working at age 30 did not change the results presented in this report.

The comparisons highlighted in the text are statistically significant at the p < .05 level to ensure that the differences were larger than might be expected due to sampling variation. No adjustments were made for multiple comparisons. For additional information about the variables, data, or methods used in this study, see the Methodology and Technical Notes at the end of the report.