A recent study found that immigrant adolescents are more motivated to study science than their non-immigrant peers, which can be explained by a more pragmatic focus on science. In addition, bilingual migrants are more professionally optimistic than their peers.

Job expectations and optimism

Teenagers’ job expectations are critical to their future education and labor market outcomes. As young immigrants make up a growing proportion of the population around the world, the sources of immigrant professional optimism or pessimism should be better understood.

Bilingual migrants were more professionally optimistic than their peers.

We examine whether 16-year-old immigrants in 19 OECD countries are more job-oriented than their peers. The countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the USA. The indicator of job optimism is the young people’s expectation to work in a high-level job up to the age of 30.

Bilingualism, science and optimism

We evaluate two arguments that explain the professional optimism of young immigrants. The first is that bilingual immigrants are resourceful, resilient, and committed to educational achievement. Bilingualism as a form of cultural capital thus arouses professional optimism.

The second argument focuses on the pragmatic orientation of immigrants to science. In previous literature it has been claimed that science is universalistic and less susceptible to discrimination on the basis of race, cultural background or linguistic competence (cf. Han 2016). In addition, immigrants see science as more helpful in securing future employment than their peers. In addition, they see it as a more even playing field and therefore enjoy it more.

Our assessment of these statements included data from a representative sample of 16-year-old immigrants who participated in the 2015 OECD Program for International Student Assessment. To see if our conclusions apply to more than one cohort, we replicated the analysis using data from older students who were nearly 16 years old in 2006.

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Their optimism was measured regarding their socio-economic background and academic performance. Lower-performing migrants with lower socio-economic status expected just as much of themselves as their privileged peers without a migrant background. When migrants agreed with their peers in terms of family background and school studies, they expected more of themselves. But migrants who did not speak any other language were also more optimistic, so that the argument of bilingualism as a beacon of hope found no support among migrants.

In addition, immigrants see science as more helpful in securing future employment than their peers. In addition, they see it as a more even playing field and therefore enjoy it more.

Pragmatism and science

However, we found in 16 countries that young immigrants were more motivated to study science than non-immigrants because of the associated better job prospects. In 18 countries, migrants also enjoyed science much more than non-migrants.

The fact that science has been accorded higher instrumental value and the joy of learning it in school explains up to 12% of immigrant students’ expectations of high-level professional activity. The same factors accounted for up to 41% of migrants’ propensity to expect a career in science.

This study failed to directly measure immigrants’ perception that science is a fairer field. Nonetheless, the results suggest that this form of pragmatism may be a reason why young immigrants are more interested in academic careers.

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