Immigrant optimism or immigrant pragmatism?

A recent study found that teenage immigrants are more motivated to study science than their non-migrant peers, which can be explained with a more pragmatic orientation to science. Additionally, bilingual migrants are more occupationally optimistic than their peers.

Occupational expectations and optimism

Occupational expectations of teenagers are essential for their future education and labour market outcomes. As young immigrants make up a growing share of the population worldwide, sources of immigrant occupational optimism or pessimism ought to be better understood.

Bilingual migrants were more occupationally optimistic than their peers.

We consider whether 16-year-old immigrants in 19 OECD countries are occupationally more optimistic than their peers. The countries are Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and United States. The indicator of occupational optimism is the adolescent expectation of working in a high-status professional job by the age of 30.

Bilingualism, science and optimism

We evaluate two arguments that explain the occupational optimism of adolescent immigrants. The first posits that bilingual immigrants are resourceful, resilient and committed to educational success. Thus, bilingualism, as a form of cultural capital, raises occupational optimism.

The second argument focuses on immigrants’ pragmatic orientation to science. Prior literature stipulates that science is reputed to be universalistic and less given to discrimination based on race, cultural backgrounds or linguistic competencies (cf. Han 2016). Moreover, immigrants see science to be more helpful in securing future employment than their peers. Additionally, they see it as a more level playing field, and thus, they enjoy it more.

Our assessment of these explanations involved data from representative samples of 16-year-old immigrants who participated in the 2015 OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment. To ascertain whether our conclusions hold in more than one cohort, we replicated the analysis using data from older students who were nearly 16 years of age in 2006.

Downloaded from pexels, by Katarina Holmes

Their optimism was measured relative to their socioeconomic background and academic achievement in science. Migrants with lower achievement and socioeconomic status expected as much of themselves as their more privileged non-migrant peers. When migrants matched their peers on family background and school science, they expected more of themselves. However, migrants who didn’t speak another language were also more optimistic, so the argument about bilingualism as a facilitator of high hopes among migrants found no support.

Moreover, immigrants see science to be more helpful in securing future employment than their peers. Additionally, they see it as a more level playing field, and thus, they enjoy it more.

Pragmatism and science

However, we found in 16 countries that teenage immigrants were more motivated to study science than non-migrants because of the associated better career prospects. Migrants also enjoyed science significantly more than non-migrants in 18 countries.

Attributing more instrumental value to science and enjoying learning it at school explained up to 12% of immigrant students’ expectations to enter high-status professional jobs. The same factors accounted for up to 41% of migrant propensity to expect a career in science.

This study could not directly measure immigrants perceptions that science is a more level playing field. Nevertheless, the findings suggest that this form of pragmatism could be one reason why teenage immigrants show more interest in science careers.

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