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Worrisome Numbers: The Increase in High School Graduates in "Unspecified Career Paths"


When I read the Ministry of Education's "Basic Statistics of Schools" that was released last year, some worrisome numbers caught my eye. Among high school graduates, the number of those in "unspecified career paths" (those who were helping around the house, those who had entered high schools or colleges overseas, and those who had otherwise not yet made career plans) numbered 127,000, a ratio of more than 9%. In the previous "School Fundamentals Study," such graduates were called "unemployed." In the current study, they became "those in unspecified career paths." Indeed, saying "unemployed" suggests the image of someone who has not obtained a job. I tend to think that this is because the number of high school students who cannot find a job even though they want to is on the rise, since the difficulty high school graduates experience in finding jobs is increasing. However, the worrisome thing is the rise in the number of "permanent part-timers" who aren't especially enthusiastic about looking for a job and of those who really graduate with "career path not yet decided" and no definite future plans.

In 1996, when the Ministry of Education was still using the category "unemployed," I thought that the problem of students with undecided career paths might someday become more serious, and I conducted a survey of Tokyo senior high schools that are known for producing students who go on to a variety of careers. Even then, when I looked at the School Fundamentals Study, I was concerned to see that the number of "unemployed" had risen to 7%, up from around 4 or 5%, which it had been until then. At that time, in the media, the difficulty of woman university graduates in finding work was linked to the problem of gender discrimination, but there was hardly any sign of treating the sudden increase in unemployed high school graduates as a problem. Four or five years later, the number of high school graduates who have not decided on a career has grown even more, and now is close to a ratio of one in ten. And finally this is beginning to come to the attention of those in educational circles and the media.

What the 1996 survey reveals is the majority of high school students who ultimately graduate with their career paths undecided have engaged in no activities whatsoever to clarify their career goals. We asked students whose career choices were undecided as graduation approached about the sort of career-related activities in which they had engaged in the spring, summer, and autumn, and an extraordinarily high number of third-year students answered "none at all": 85% in the spring, 68% in the summer, and 79% said this even in the autumn. (The Japanese school year starts in spring). And, 53% of those whose career paths were undecided had not engaged in any activities connected with career choice in either spring, summer or autumn.

Students will not go to higher education or find a job unless they do things like collecting information and making efforts on their own to visit schools or companies. First of all, those students who approach graduation having done none of this kind of activity at all make up more than half of the number of those with undecided career paths. It is not that they are unable to figure out what to do after earnestly making every effort they can. These students who go on without thinking about their future plans and do not know what they want to do end up graduating having done nothing to choose a career path. There are more general-education students who remain undecided without doing any activities than students in vocational courses.

In our society, we have come to believe that it is good not to narrow children's career paths too early. In order to offer as many chances as possible, we postpone the period that careers must be decided, and think that a "good education" is one that provides a large number of choices in order to make a variety of career paths possible. This trend has been responsible for the increase in the number of general education course over vocational courses, and the present-day increased expansion of general education courses, credit-system high schools, and the like are extensions of the same kind of thinking.

The number of young people who have fallen through the cracks of this reform that has been promoted as if it were a good thing is rising. The result of leaving it all up to their desires and choices is that we have created nearly 130,000 high school graduates in "unspecified career paths. "Perhaps this too is a "journey of self-discovery," to cite a famous phrase from a proposal of the Central Council of Education. Well, without a doubt, this is certainly a "result" of today's educational reform.

In the background one may well hear the voice that asks, "Cannot people live their lives like that, too?" but what have been the historical circumstances that have created our prosperous society? At what sacrifice has our prosperous society come into being? And as for these young people with "unspecified" career paths, can they really live an enriching life throughout the years to come? When we think about this, that voice rings in the ears just like a demonic whisper.

This article is a translation of
Kariya, Takehiko. 2000. Worrisome Numbers: The Increase in High School Graduates in "Unspecified Career Paths" (in Japanese). Gekkan shinken nyusu chugakusei ban Vol. 250 (published by Benesse Corporation): 6.


Takehiko Kariya
Sociologist of education; Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Books include "Gakko tte Nandaroo" (What is School?) published by Kodansha Publishing Company.
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