The extent of people's aspirations depends on their own beliefs about what they can achieve with effort, i.e. people won’t aspire to an outcome that is perceived as inaccessible. Thus, in the process of forming aspirations, individuals filter and dismiss some of the unattainable options on the basis of their expectations, so that even when opportunities become available, we might get stuck in a vicious loop of not aspiring, not investing, not achieving because of our pessimist beliefs. Poverty may generate poverty. For many years, poverty-eradication strategies focused on building up people’s assets, in the form of human capital or physical and financial capital. This type of policies assumes that people become poor and remain poor solely because of constraints that are external to them. More recently, behavioural economists have proposed an alternative view which highlights the role of internal constraints in perpetuating poverty traps. But little is known about how aspirations shape decision-making.
Our recent paper partly addresses this gap. We focus on three related questions. First, the relationship between educational aspirations and boys’ and girls’ educational attainment, as an indicator of cumulative investments in education. Second, how parents and children form their aspirations and the transmission of aspirations from one generation to another. Third, the gender-based bias in aspirations and whether an initial pro-boys aspiration bias might partly explain the perpetuation of gender inequality, particularly in a context of extreme poverty.
We found that parents’ and children’s aspirations are high: most parents and children have university-related aspirations, but children and parents from wealthier families tend to have higher aspirations. Furthermore, the overall pro-boys gender gap in aspirations we see in our data widens among the poorest families.
We found that the educational aspirations of parents are responsive to their expectations about the age when their children will become independent and leave the household and get married. Moreover, aspirations are transmitted from one generation to the other. In fact, children’s aspirations tend to mirror parental aspirations. Finally, parents have higher aspirations for children who are performing better at school. Similarly, boys and girls adapt and change their aspirations over time, in the light of new experiences, choices and information, including their awareness of their own abilities and the perceived social risks and opportunities. More specifically, boys and girls tend to revise their own aspirations in opposite directions: boys tend to over-estimate their options for the future and end up revising their aspirations downwards. Girls, on the other hand, grow in their aspirations over time.