Can Locus of Control Compensate for Socioeconomic Adversity in the Transition from School to Work?
Can Locus of Control Compensate for Socioeconomic Adversity in the Transition from School to Work?
Terry Ng-Knight 0
● Ingrid Schoon 0
0 Department of Social Sciences, UCL Institute of Education , 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL , UK
Internal locus of control is associated with academic success and indicators of wellbeing in youth. There is however less understanding regarding the role of locus of control in shaping the transition from school to work beyond the more widely studied predictors of socioeconomic background and academic attainment. Guided by a socio-ecological model of agency, the current study examines to which extent internal locus of control, understood as an indicator of individual agency, can compensate for a lack of socioeconomic resources by moderating the association between parental disadvantage and difficulties in the transition from school to work. We draw on data collected from a longitudinal nationally representative cohort of 15,770 English youth (48% female) born in 1989/ 90, following their lives from age 14 to 20. The results suggest that the influence of agency is limited to situations where socioeconomic risk is not overpowering. While internal locus of control may help to compensate for background disadvantage regarding avoidance of economic inactivity and unemployment to some extent, it does not provide protection against long-term inactivity, i.e. more than 6 months spent not in education, employment or training.
Agency ● Locus of control ● SES ● Transition from school to work ● NEET ● Resilience
The transition from secondary school to work or further
education is an important developmental task for youth and
ranks high in terms of complexity and relevance for later
(Buchmann and Kriesi 2011; Schulenberg
and Schoon 2012)
. Youth have to mobilize and take
advantage of the opportunities and resources available to
them, yet persisting social inequalities continue to shape the
challenges they are facing. For example, youth from less
privileged family backgrounds are at a greater risk than their
more privileged peers of encountering difficulties in finding
and sustaining steady and gainful employment during this
(Furstenberg 2008; Lui et al. 2014; Schoon and
Lyons-Amos 2017, 2016)
. There is, however, also evidence
to suggest that some youth succeed against the odds, and are
able to establish themselves in the labor market or pursue
an academic career despite the experience of parental
(Duckworth and Schoon 2012;
Heckhausen and Chang 2009)
Within this context, individual differences in so-called
non-cognitive factors have gained widespread attention in
(Heckman and Kautz 2012; OECD 2015)
largely due to their ability to predict a range of important
outcomes in the adult years, including educational and
occupational attainment as well as health and wellbeing
independently of parental social background or cognitive
ability. Indeed, it has been argued that personality can to
some extent compensate for socioeconomic disadvantage
(“resource substitution”). However recent evidence shows
that high levels of generally valued personality traits such as
extraversion and conscientiousness only offer partial
compensation for the disadvantage associated with parental
socioeconomic status (SES), and that they are by no means
sufficient to lead to full catch-up effects
(Damian et al.
2015; Shanahan et al. 2014)
. This suggests that individual
characteristics that predict positive outcomes may not
necessarily be the same as those that moderate
socioeconomic risk processes at the population level. Such an
assumption aligns with the concept of “resilience”, which
emphasizes a focus on factors that have substantial positive
effects in the presence of adversity but often have little or no
effects in the general population of low-risk individuals
. Therefore, more work is required to identify
characteristics that reduce risk for disadvantaged youth. The
current study shifts focus beyond dispositional traits such as
the “big five”, to the more contextualized adaptations that
characterize individuals’ attempts to operate as
selfdetermining or agentic beings in a social world
(McAdams and Pals 2006)
. In particular, we focus on the role of
internal locus of control as a potential resource factor,
enabling youth from disadvantaged background to beat the
Locus of control refers to an individual’s perception of
their ability to exercise control over their environment
and emphasizes that the choices people make
are dependent on expectations that their behavior will result
in the desired outcome. For example, “internals” (people
high on internal locus of control) believe they have control
over their environment and that they can determine what
happens in their life, whereas “externals” (people high on
external locus of control) believe their lives are dictated by
external factors beyond their control. Locus of control maps
onto the agentic property of “self-reflectiveness,” which
involves the evaluation of one’s personal efficacy and was
described by Bandura as the “most distinctly core property
of human agency” (2006, p. 165).
The article adds to current debates in three ways. First,
we adopt a multi-dimensional approach in conceptualizing
SES and unpack the effects of different dimensions of SES
on internal locus of control and transition experiences.
Second, we examine the role of internal locus of control in
shaping the transition from school to work in addition and
beyond the influence of SES and academic attainment.
Third, we assesses interactions between SES and internal
locus of control to assess whether high levels of agency may
overcome specific aspects of disadvantage and test whether
agency predicts post-school transitions differently for
advantaged and disadvantaged youth.
A Socio-Ecological Model of Agency
The study is guided by a socio-ecological model of agency
(Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017)
testing the interplay of
parental SES and internal locus of control in shaping the
school-to-work transition in a prospective longitudinal
design using a population representative cohort of youth.
The model is informed by sociological life course theory
(Elder and Shanahan 2006)
with its emphasis on multiple
sources of influence on individual lives, social cognitive
theories of human action
Eccles et al.’s
) person-environment fit theory. The model was
introduced to investigate how objective socioeconomic
conditions affect individual thinking, feeling and behavior,
and to examine the extent to which youth are able to steer
the courses of their lives despite constraining forces of
social structure. Individual agency is understood to be
shaped by opportunity structures, social networks and
institutions, taking into account the impact of multiple
socioeconomic risk factors that influence everyday
In this study, we test two assumptions of this model in
the context of post-school transitions: socialization and
interaction effects. First, we assess whether there are direct
and potentially corrosive effects of low SES on the
expression of agency (socialization effects). Second, we
examine interaction effects between SES and agency
regarding the experiences of youth after completing
compulsory schooling, focusing on the amount of time spent not
in education, employment or training (NEET). In particular,
we test a) if there is an interaction between SES and agency
in shaping transition experiences; b) if there are
compensatory effects (i.e. “resource substitution” or “resilience”
effects) where agency is assumed to compensate for the lack
of SES resources; or c) if there are cumulative effects, i.e.
higher levels of agency are more beneficial at higher levels
of parental SES.
Structural Influences on Agency—a Multidimensional
Conceptualization of SES
There is persistent evidence that a lack of family
socioeconomic resources, i.e. poverty, loss of employment, or
low levels of parental education, is associated with
adjustment problems in offspring
(Yoshikawa et al. 2012)
example, children born into less privileged families show, in
general, lower levels of educational attainment
Corwyn 2002; Engle and Black 2008; Schoon et al. 2002)
educational achievement motivation
Schoon 2012; Mortimer et al. 2014; Schoon 2014)
selfconfidence and locus of control
(Ahlin and Antunes 2015;
Battle and Rotter 1963; Flouri 2006; Moilanen and Shen
. Explanations of these associations refer to
cumulative risk effects
(DiPrete and Eirich 2006)
, the lack of
financial resources and socialization effects involving
familiarity with the dominant culture, social networks and
access to warm and supportive parenting
(Conger et al.
Although the role of SES in shaping individual lives
(including variations in locus of control) has been
extensively studied, SES is treated in a variety of ways and
there is still little understanding of the relative and
independent role of multiple indicators of SES in shaping locus
of control and experiences in the school-to-work transition.
Moving beyond unidimensional conceptualizations of SES,
such as a sole focus on parental education or income, or the
use of a summary index comprising multiple indicators, we
adopt a multidimensional approach in defining SES,
“decomposing” the influence of socioeconomic risk
and Goldthorpe 2013)
. In doing so, we assess the relative
and independent contributions of multiple indicators of SES
in shaping internal locus of control and transition
experiences. In our analysis, we include indicators of longstanding
financial advantage via assets such as home ownership, as
well as more volatile or changeable indicators of financial
status, i.e., current income levels and unemployment. These
are assessed alongside traditional indicators of SES such as
parental education and occupational class to provide broad
coverage of parental SES.
Adopting a multidimensional definition of SES enables
us to gain a better understanding of how internal locus of
control might be shaped by different facets of social
background—i.e., we can assess which dimensions of SES affect
agency most strongly, and we gain a better understanding of
whether internal locus of control can compensate for
specific SES dimensions but not for others. Past research has
shown that parental class, income, assets and education—
relating to different forms of parental resources, such as
economic, socio-cultural and informational—have
independent and distinct effects on individual lives
Goldthorpe 2013; Duckworth and Schoon 2012)
example, youth living in families who own their own home
might develop higher levels of internal locus of control
because their lives are more predictable and stable
. Better educated parents might help their
children to develop skills and strategies to deal with problems
effectively and thus raise their perceptions of control,
selfreliance and personal responsibility
(Ross and Mirowsky
, whereas working class parents with little control
over their jobs might emphasize obedience and conformity
(Bornstein and Bradley 2012; Lewis et al. 1999)
. Teens are
likely to be aware of the vulnerabilities involved by living
in poverty and in low income families, and the stress of this
experience might undermine not only their parents’
capability for effective parenting but also their sense of
personal control (Conger et al. 2010).
Understanding how SES affects developmental outcomes
requires a careful differentiation of its elements, examining
distinctive connections and influences. Likewise, a better
understanding of how structural constraints and individual
agency shape each other and how they interact during the
transition from school to work requires the careful
unpacking of the complex and potentially reciprocal
relationships between different indicators of family
background and individual characteristics and how these
develop over time. To our knowledge this is the first study
to assess the relative and independent role of multiple
indicators of SES in shaping locus of control and their
multivariate effect in shaping experiences in the
Can Locus of Control Compensate for Socioeconomic
Previous research has shown, that youth from less
privileged families tend to leave education earlier and are more
likely to encounter problems in the transition from school to
work, such as experiencing prolonged periods of time spent
not being in education, employment or training (NEET)
than their more privileged peers
(Bynner and Parsons 2002;
Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017, 2016)
. Longer periods of
unemployment or economic inactivity during the
school-towork transition are problematic because this can increase
the risk of poor occupational and psychological outcomes in
the immediate and longer term including lower earnings,
persistent unemployment, lower life satisfaction and higher
levels of malaise
(Bynner and Parsons 2002; Krahn and
Chow 2016; Mroz and Savage 2006)
The transition from school-to-work is therefore likely to
present additional difficulties for already vulnerable youth,
magnifying prior risks as reflected in the notion of
(DiPrete and Eirich 2006)
increasing opportunities for already privileged youth, reflecting
cumulative advantage. However, each transition can
demarcate a turning point that is associated with change for
the better or worse
(Elder and Shanahan 2006)
. There is
heterogeneity in transition experiences and one of the most
compelling reasons for longitudinal studies of youth
transitions is to identify why some youth succeed against the
odds, why some avoid negative outcomes such as long-term
unemployment despite exposure to significant risk factors.
We thus ask, if internal locus of control is a potential
resource factor that can compensate for background
disadvantage and enable youth to succeed against the odds.
The transition to independent adulthood is an important
period for identity formation, where transition experiences
may shape and have enduring consequences for youth’s
self-concept and perception of control. The increasingly
unstructured and protracted nature of the early adulthood
period places an increased emphasis on youth finding and
pursuing their own pathway to adulthood
(Schwartz et al.
. In this respect, internal locus of control may be a key
resource factor enabling the young person to navigate and
take advantage of the available opportunities, while those
who lack both structural support and agentic resources
might more likely adopt “passive or procrastinatory
approaches” placing them at risk of extended periods of not
being in work, training or education
(Schwartz et al. 2005)
Based on previous studies testing the compensatory role
of personality characteristics and agency on status
attainment outcomes after leaving compulsory schooling
(Damian et al. 2015; Shanahan et al. 2014; Schoon and
, we test three patterns in relation to
parental SES when predicting transition experiences: (1) the
independent effects model, which assumes that parental
SES and internal locus of control independently predict
transition experiences; (2) the resource substitution, or
compensatory model, which assumes interactions between
SES and internal locus of control in that high levels of
internal locus of control have more beneficial effects for
youth from less privileged backgrounds; and (3) the
cumulative advantage model, which expects that internal
locus of control is a stronger predictor of attainment at
higher levels of parental SES.
The independent effects model assumes no interactions
between parental SES and internal locus of control, i.e.,
internal locus of control is beneficial for all youth across
parental SES levels.
Damian et al. (2015)
refer to this as the
default model, reflecting the standard approach taken by
researchers assessing the validity of predictors, such as
internal locus of control on outcomes such as academic
attainment. For example, previous studies have shown that
individuals who feel that they are in control do better
(Au 2015; Bursik and Martin 2006; Lynch et al.
. There is however less current evidence on the role of
internal locus of control as a predictor of experiences in the
transition from school to work, nor have these prior studies
tested for interactions between parental SES and internal
locus of control in shaping subsequent transition
Compensatory effects are indicative of statistical
moderation, i.e., distinct characteristics can moderate the
disadvantaging effect of low socioeconomic resources. In other
words, high levels of internal locus of control may
compensate for background disadvantage (resource substitution)
with respect to avoiding a problematic entry into the labor
market, characterized by prolonged periods of NEET. If so,
the benefits of high levels of locus of control would be
greater for youth from disadvantaged backgrounds,
enabling them to avoid a problematic transition. Preliminary
support for this assumption was found in a cross-sectional
study of 326 Greek undergraduate students, where internal
locus of control seemed to buffer the negative effects of
adversity measured using a life events checklist
. Compensatory effects regarding status
attainment among less privileged individuals also have been
identified related to personality characteristics
et al. 2014)
. However, the compensatory effects were only
weak and importantly they attenuated after controlling for
indicators of cognitive ability—pointing to independent
rather than compensatory effects
(Damian et al. 2015)
Thus, more research is needed to clarify the potential
compensatory role of control perceptions in conditions of
The first two models presume that human agency can to
some extent enable individuals to steer the course of their
lives, either independently of social background or by
substituting for the lack of socioeconomic resources. The
cumulative advantage model in contrast assumes that a
favorable relative position produces further gains in
developmental outcomes. This process has also been called a
“Matthew effect”, suggesting that the rich get richer and that
youth raised in relative privileged families are likely to
benefit more from certain individual characteristics,
probably because a more favorable environment enables the
development and realization of relevant competences
(Damian et al. 2015)
. According to the cumulative
advantage model, we would expect youth from relatively
advantaged backgrounds to have higher levels of internal
locus of control
(see Ahlin and Antunes 2015; Battle and
Rotter 1963; Moilanen and Shen 2014)
and to benefit more
from this characteristic in the transition from school to
The aim of this study is to examine how youth’s internal
locus of control and parental SES interact in shaping the
transition from secondary school to work, focusing on the
experience of prolonged NEET. Specifically, we test for
evidence of four models: (1) the socialization effects model
(i.e., youth with fewer parental socioeconomic resources are
expected to have lower levels of internal locus of control);
(2) the independent effects model (i.e., internal locus of
control predicts time spent NEET independent of parental
SES); (3) the resource substitution model (i.e., a high level
of internal locus of control reduces the risk of being NEET
especially at lower levels of parental SES); and (4)
cumulative advantage model (i.e., a high level of internal locus of
control reduces the risk of being NEET especially at high
levels of parental SES).
We include prior academic attainment, gender and ethnic
minority status as control variables to our model to take into
account potential confounding factors. For example,
previous studies have shown that academic attainment can
increase feelings of being in control
(Bandura 1997; Ross
and Mirowsky 2013)
and reduce the risk of being NEET
(Bynner and Parsons 2002; Schoon and Lyons-Amos
. Regarding gender differences in internal locus of
control, the evidence is not conclusive, with some studies
finding that females have lower levels of control perceptions
than males (see for example, Falci 2011) while others do not
find significant differences
(Ahlin and Antunes 2015;
Moilanen and Shen 2014)
. Likewise, regarding the
experience of NEET, some studies suggest that females have a
higher risk of being NEET
(Bynner and Parsons 2002)
while others (using more current cohort data) find no
(Duckworth and Schoon 2012; Schoon
and Lyons-Amos 2017)
. Similarly, the evidence is not
conclusive in relation to ethnic minority differences, with
some studies in the US context suggesting that African
Americans are less likely to develop high levels of internal
locus of control than Whites
(Ahlin and Antunes 2015)
while others show that African Americans report higher
levels of perceived control
(Lewis et al. 1999)
or find no
(Moilanen and Shen 2014)
Procedure and Sample
This study used data from the Longitudinal Study of Young
People in England (LSYPE) which is a panel study of
15,770 youth born between 1st September 1989 and 31st
August 1990. Sample members were youth in school year 9
(age 13/14) or equivalent, in England in February 2004.
Annual face-to-face interviews were conducted with youth
and their parents between 2004 and 2010 and data are
linked to academic records from the National Pupil Data
base (NPD) (for more details see https://www.education.
The seven waves of data collection cover ages 13/14 (age
at assessment: M = 14.26, SD = 0.32) to 19/20 (age at
assessment: M = 20.31, SD = 0.31) years. The weighted
sample is ethnically diverse though most minority ethnic
groups are small, 86.1% identified as White, 2.5% Indian,
2.3% Pakistani, 0.9% Bangladeshi, 1.4% Black Caribbean,
1.6% Black African, 2.8% mixed ethnicity and 2.3% as
other ethnicities. The sample is also diverse in terms of
socioeconomic coverage, for instance, regarding maternal
education, 11.3% of mothers had a degree or equivalent
qualification, 12.6% had higher education below degree
level, 13.5% had post-school qualifications (A-levels or
equivalents), 30.3% had a good standard of secondary
education (GCSEs at grade A–C), 9.9% had basic
qualifications (level 1), 20.7% had no qualifications and 1.8% had
The LSYPE was sampled using a probability
proportional to size method, using schools as the primary sampling
unit. It was additionally stratified on deprivation levels of
those schools, oversampling more deprived schools and
pupils from minority ethnic groups. The initial sample size
was 15,770 partial responses (data from young person) and
13,914 full responses (young person and parent) although
not all youth provided information for all waves of the
survey. The Wave 7 sample consisted of all youth who had
been interviewed at previous waves and who agreed to be
re-contacted. In total 9791 cases were contacted at Wave 7
Internal locus of control
Internal locus of control was measured at wave 2, using a
3item measure: If someone is not a success in life, it is
usually their own fault (L1); I can pretty much decide what
will happen in my life (L2); If you work hard at something
you’ll usually succeed (L3). Responses were coded on
4point scale 1 = strongly agree, 2 = agree, 3 = disagree, 4 =
strongly disagree. Responses to all three items were
reversed so high scores indicate higher levels of internal
locus of control and low levels indicate low internal locus of
control. Confirmatory factor analysis showed that the three
items all loaded satisfactorily on a single factor (all std.
loadings > .3 [L1: .34; L2: .36; L3: .50], p < .001).
Parental socioeconomic status (SES)
At wave 1 five indicators of parental SES were measured by
parent-reported indicators of parental education,
occupational class, income, housing tenure, and unemployment.
Parental education was measured as the highest level of
education of either parent on a 4-point scale, ranging from
no or very low educational qualifications up to degree level
Parental household income was reported by the parent
as annual banded income and was measured in four
groups (i.e., <£10,400; £10,400-£20,800, £20,801-£33,800,
Parental occupational class was assessed using the
National Statistics Socioeconomic Classification,
differentiating parents in routine and manual (1), intermediate (2),
and higher professional and managerial (3) occupations—
using the highest level of either parent.
Sex Males were the reference category (coded 0) and
females were the comparison group (coded 1).
Housing was measured by parent reports, differentiating
between home ownership (including mortgage,
part-ownership, owned outright) and renting (including
governmentbased and private renting).
Parental long-term unemployment was identified if at
least one parent was reported as being unemployed for over
Time spent Not in Education, Employment or Training (NEET)
This was assessed with monthly activity history data
collected over 44 months between ages 16 to 20 (October 2006
and May 2010). These data recorded youth’s main activity
for each month during the year before the survey, including
being in full-time education, employed (part- or full-time),
in an apprenticeship or government training, or being
NEET. For the current study, we created a variable which
summed the number of occasions (i.e., months) youth
reported being NEET.
Academic attainment was assessed by grades in Maths,
English and Science (Key Stage 3) for Year 9 when pupils
were approximately 13/14 years old, derived from the
National Pupil Database.
iLoC internal locus of control, NEET not in education, employment or training, Low occ. class low occupational class comprising routine and
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001
Ethnicity Due to the large number of relatively small
minority groups in the UK we only controlled for ethnic
minority status (coded 1) and compared this group to those
of the majority white ethnicity group (coded 0).
Analyses consisted of a series of path models run using
Mplus version 7 (
Muthén and Muthén 2012
). Due to the
complex sampling strategy of the LSYPE, we utilized the
cluster, stratification, and design weight options in Mplus.
Similar to most longitudinal cohort studies the sample size
reduced over time. Attrition was slightly higher among
youth from lower SES backgrounds and lower academic
attainment, but associations between observed
characteristics and non-response were generally small (further details
are available from the first author). The total available
sample sizes were 15,770 at wave 1, 13,539 at wave 2, and
8682 at the wave 7 follow-up. Full activity data used to
calculate time spent NEET were available for 8452 youth
and partial responses were available for a further 3287. To
reduce the bias arising from attrition, missing data were
handled with full information maximum likelihood (FIML)
which uses all available data (up to N = 15,770) rather than
deleting participants or imputing values
Descriptive statistics for the main study variables are shown
in Table 1. To simplify the table, dummy indicators for
socioeconomic disadvantage were entered into the
correlation matrix, rather than including dummies for all SES
indicators (the dummy variables contrast indicators of low
level SES to all other levels of SES as the reference group).
All indicators of socioeconomic disadvantage were
positively associated with months spent NEET while internal
locus of control showed a negative correlation with months
spent NEET. The control variables are also negatively
associated with months spent NEET, suggesting less
experience of time spent NEET among ethnic minority
youth, females and those with higher academic attainment.
Associations between Internal Locus of Control and SES
In contrast to our predictions of corrosive socialization
effects (model 1), there was little evidence that SES was
negatively associated with youth’s internal locus of control
(see Table 2). Estimates were generally close to zero,
however, in contrast to expectations, there was a slight
tendency for youth from the richest group of households to
report lower levels of internal locus of control. We also
found small correlations with control variables, where
higher internal locus of control was found for minority
ethnic status, boys, and higher school attainment (see Table 1).
Interactions of Internal Locus of Control and
Socioeconomic Factors in Predicting Time Spent NEET
Bivariate associations presented in Table 3 show that
socioeconomic disadvantage is associated with more time being
NEET. For example, living in rented housing was
associated with an additional 4.86 months NEET compared to
living in an owner-occupied home. As expected, internal
locus of control was negatively associated with number of
months spent NEET showing that higher internal locus of
control was, on average, associated with fewer months
NEET. In the multivariate model (Table 3), low parental
occupational class and education, rented housing and
internal locus of control all predicted duration NEET.
Household income and parental unemployment did not.
Moreover, internal locus of control has an independent
effect on time spent NEET in addition to and above the
influence of parental SES and the controls (gender,
ethnicity, academic attainment). The findings thus support model
2. There was, however, some evidence of suppression
effects in the multivariate model (higher occupational class
predicted more time NEET) that were driven by inclusion of
multiple (correlated) socioeconomic factors in the same
model. Re-running the model for each socioeconomic factor
separately did not result in suppression effects (results
available from first author) so caution should be taken when
interpreting the positive association between higher
occupational class and time NEET.
Given the suppression effects found above, we examined
interaction terms separately for each socioeconomic
indicator. In line with the assumption of “resource substitution”
(model 3), there were significant interaction effects
suggesting that internal locus of control was particularly
important to youth from low socioeconomic groups (Table
4). This applies to all five indicators of parental SES. The
compensatory effects varied by the degree of disadvantage,
where high levels of internal locus of control reduced time
spent NEET for low socioeconomic groups but generally
had little effect in the middle and especially high
socioeconomic groups. We find no evidence to support model 4
regarding cumulative advantage. Indeed, the findings
suggests that high levels of internal control among youth with
higher educated parents are associated with an increased
number of months spent NEET.
Multivariate model + controlsa
Note: Bivariate associations come from separate path models for each predictor variable
The multivariate path model contains all listed predictor variables and control variables
These models provide linear regression estimates using the Maximum Likelihood estimator
N for bivariate models = 14013 (occupational class), 15263 (education), 13519 (income), 15643 (housing),
15578 (unemployed). N for multivariate model = 15770
Full information maximum likelihood estimates
Data are weighted to population characteristics
a Control variables were sex, ethnicity, and academic attainment
*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p < .001
As a robustness check, we used a dichotomous measure
of time spent NEET, differentiating between a prolonged
period of being NEET (6 months or longer) which affected
about 20% of the sample and those with fewer months
being NEET. When using the dichotomous outcome
measure in a logistic regression model, the interaction effects
between high levels of internal control and the indicators of
parental SES ceased to be significant (Table 5). Internal
locus of control continued to show a significant independent
effect over and above indicators of parental SES.
This article examined a number of hypotheses about the
inter-relations between parental SES and youth’s internal
locus of control during the transition out of secondary
school education. We found no support for our first model
which predicted associations between low parental SES and
lower levels of internal locus of control in youth (Table 2).
This is somewhat surprising given that earlier studies have
quite consistently reported higher internal locus of control
among children of middle class parents
(Ahlin and Antunes
2015; Battle and Rotter 1963; Flouri 2006; Moilanen and
. However, our null findings complement recent
work showing that among current cohorts control
perceptions and belief in upward mobility is high among the
majority of youth regardless of parental SES (Shane and
Heckhausen 2017). Therefore, one interpretation of our
findings might be that youth in the UK today are relatively
optimistic of their own sense of control regardless of their
parents’ socioeconomic position. This may be true given
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that the UK had a broadly comprehensive school system
and widespread access to higher education during the period
these youth were studied, and the majority of youth,
including those from less privileged backgrounds aimed to
participate in higher education
. As such, it
may be more fruitful to examine more proximal processes in
children’s lives, such as interactions with parents, peers and
teachers as potential drivers of individual differences in
internal locus of control
(see for example, Ahlin and
Antunes 2015; Moilanen and Shen 2014)
. A second
interpretation is that mid-adolescence is not the best time to
measure social class given that much of the existing
literature points to early childhood as an important period for
the effects of social inequalities
(Duncan et al. 2010;
. Future research might be able to tease
these associations apart by following youth from an earlier
age than we do here.
Greater understanding of how high internal locus of
control can be cultivated is warranted if its efficacy as a
protective factor is to be tested more fully. The associations
found between internal locus of control and covariates
suggest higher levels of internal locus of control among
males, ethnic minorities and those doing better academically
(Table 1). As such, increased personal agency may come
about from greater understanding of structural constraints
(e.g., as communicated in gender or racial/ethnic
socialization processes) or from positive reinforcement (e.g.,
academic success). Parents are likely to play an important
role in their children’s perceptions of control and the extant
literature demonstrates some interesting differences in
child-rearing between working- and middle-class parents
(Bornstein and Bradley 2012; Ross and Mirowsky 2013)
well as gender differences in socialization. For instance,
parents are more inclined to instill self-direction and
initiative among their sons than among their daughters
(Falci 2011). Moreover, middle-class parents tend to place
greater value on self-direction that focuses on the child
internally directing their own behavior, while working-class
parents tend to place greater value on conformity which
focuses on behavior controlled by externally imposed
(Kohn and Schooler 1983; Lewis et al. 1999)
. It is
possible that the children from low SES families with high
levels of internal locus of control are a slightly unusual
group and this is possibly due to their experience of
parenting that has traditionally been more common in
middleclass families. Interestingly, we found a negative
association between internal locus of control and high levels of
parental income, potentially pointing to a more carefree
environment among relatively privileged youth—however,
the association was only very small.
Multiple dimensions of SES are associated with the
duration youth spent NEET. The most robust of these
negative effects relate to rented housing status, low parental
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occupational class and low parental education (Table 3).
Parental housing status is by far the strongest of these
predictors, approximately twice as strong as education or
occupational class in fact. Home ownership is a key
indicator of wealth and assets and its strong predictive effect
suggests youth’s difficulties establishing productive roles
after secondary school are driven by more pervasive and
ingrained inequalities, the availability of assets and
potentially also neighborhood characteristics
(Ahlin and Antunes
2015; Schoon 2014; Schoon and Lyons-Amos 2017)
Additional variance is explained by internal locus of
control over and above these SES effects, supporting model
2 regarding independent effects (Table 3). As expected, all
indicators of SES predicted the experience of NEET. Yet,
the findings also show that internal levels of control have
significant main effects on the experience of NEET, even
after controlling for SES, academic attainment, gender and
ethnic minority status. The findings thus suggest that
individuals are not passively exposed to structural forces and to
some extent can steer the course of their life despite
socioeconomic constraints. Perceptions of control are an
important prerequisite for taking action in the face of
difficulties or uncertainty and such perceptions have shown to
play an important role in youth’s transitions to adulthood
(e.g., Lewis et al. 1999)
. Interestingly, the findings in the
multivariate model (Table 3) suggest that after controlling
for the other indicators of SES, parental income and
parental unemployment were not significant predictors of
NEET, confirming previous evidence that challenges the
assumption of an intergenerational transmission of a
“culture of worklessness”, rather pointing to the role of
cumulative risks in the lives of the most disadvantaged families
Moreover, a pattern of statistical interactions across all
measures of SES supported the assumption of “resource
substitution” (model 3). The resource substitution model
states that if a resource such as high SES or high internal
locus of control is absent, it can be compensated by the
other, with each having less of an effect if the other is
present and the worse outcomes found for those with neither
(Ross and Mirowsky 2006)
. Social privilege
provides confidence in one’s worth, while perceptions of
control provides confidence in one’s ability, and either of these
resources serves as an alternative means of reducing the
risks posed by the transition from school to work
. The findings suggest that internal locus of
control is an important predictor of the number of months
spent NEET, especially for youth with the fewest
However, when testing the robustness of these effects by
using a dichotomized score differentiating between longer
experiences of being NEET (6 months and longer) during
the 4-year period after leaving compulsory schooling and
less precarious transitions, we find that the significant
interaction effects cease to be significant (Table 5). Thus,
while internal locus of control might be advantageous in
reducing the risk of occasional periods of economic
inactivity or unemployment, it is less effective in protecting
against the prolonged experience of being NEET among
less privileged youth. We find independent effects for
internal locus of control over and above parental SES in all
the models predicting prolonged time spent NEET. The
findings thus suggest, that transition experiences are
especially challenging for youth who might not have access to
the necessary information and guidance or financial
resources. As already indicated above, a promising avenue
for future studies would be to investigate family
socialization practices in more detail, and how these are interlinked
with different dimensions of parental SES.
Regarding model 4, we found little evidence to support
the assumption of cumulative advantage. As already
mentioned, we found no strong associations between parental
SES and internal locus of control among youth—and
interestingly, internal locus of control typically had very
little influence on the time spent NEET among youth from
middle and especially high SES backgrounds. In fact, youth
with high levels of internal locus of control growing up with
better educated parents showed an increased risk for
experiencing NEET (although not prolonged NEET of
6 months or more). The findings thus point to a potential
“dark side” of high control perceptions, which for some can
imply that they overestimate their capability to find
employment. This might be especially critical in times of an
economic downturn, such as the Great Recession that
occurred just at the time when this cohort of youth made
their way into the labor market. For privileged youth more
generally, the findings may reflect the reality that they do
not perceive any structural constraints regarding their
progression from school to future ventures. It might be that
because the opportunities open to relatively privileged
youth are largely structurally determined these youth
require little agency to succeed or that they rely on their
parents to support them.
In sum, the different effects seen for low vs. high SES
youth are indicative of internal locus of control being a
“resilience” factor rather than a universally “promotive”
factor, where resilience is defined as a better outcome than
is usually expected from individuals with a similarly
. We do however note
that the beneficial effects of internal locus of control for
relatively disadvantaged youth are not unlimited, and that
high levels of control perceptions do not enable
disadvantaged youth to ward off prolonged experiences
(6 months or more) of being NEET.
There are some limitations to the current study that future
studies should aim to improve upon. For example, future
research should aim to use improved measures of internal
locus of control. The factor loadings for the scale used here,
while within typically accepted criteria
low which is likely to have attenuated the reported effect
sizes. The effects reported here should therefore be
considered conservative with potential for much stronger
(Frost and Thompson 2000)
. We used a brief
(3item) questionnaire scale as this was the measure available
in the LSYPE, but future research should aim to use more
reliable scales, such as the 20 item Nowicki-Strickland scale
(1973). It would also be beneficial to measure parents’ locus
of control in future studies to assess the extent to which
control perceptions are transmitted between generations.
Previous research found the compensatory effects of
personality attenuated after controlling for intelligence
(Damian et al. 2015)
. Measures of intelligence were not
available in the LSYPE dataset, so we controlled for
academic attainment instead. Intelligence and school
achievement tend to be highly correlated—yet they are clearly
distinct constructs with their own strengths and biases.
Future studies should thus test, whether the findings
presented in this article hold in a sample containing measures
of intelligence. Moreover, as in all longitudinal studies we
are faced with the problem of missingness in response. We
used full information maximum likelihood estimates to
address this issue. Moreover, we checked the robustness of
findings against results with complete data, which
confirmed the stability of the solution. Finally, our findings
might be unique to the English context, especially regarding
variations in experience among minority youth.
The findings suggest that internal locus of control can to
some extent protect disadvantaged youth from precarious
transition experiences after the completion of compulsory
education—however it does not protect against prolonged
experiences of economic inactivity and unemployment
during the post-school period. Thus, agency appears to be
most effective when socioeconomic constraints are not
overpowering. We showed that internal locus of control can
in some circumstances compensate for background
disadvantage, even after controlling for academic attainment.
There are significant effects at both ends of the internal
locus of control continuum, and variations of interactions
for high and low SES groups. The findings highlight the
importance of adopting a multi-dimensional
conceptualization of SES, and considering interactions between
individual agency and distinct dimensions of
socioeconomic adversity to get a better understanding of
developmental processes during important transition periods.
Funding Terry Ng-Knight is supported by the post-doctoral
Fellowship program PATHWAYS to Adulthood, funded by the Jacobs
Foundation. Ingrid Schoon is supported by the Wissenschaftszentrum
Berlin (WZB) and Grant Number ES/J019658/1 from the British
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for the Centre for Learning
and Life-chances in the Knowledge Economies (LLAKES, Phase II).
Author Contributions T.N.K. participated in the conception of the
study, drafted the manuscript and performed the statistical analysis; I.
S. conceived the study, informed the analytic strategy, contributed to
the interpretation and with T.N.K. drafted the manuscript. All authors
read and approved the final manuscript.
Compliance with Ethical Standards Data collected by the Centre
for Longitudinal Studies (http://www.cls.ioe.ac.uk) are collected in
line with the Economic and Social Research Council’s (www.esrc.ac.
uk) Research Ethics Framework which requires: informed consent;
confidentiality and anonymity of participants; voluntary participation;
avoidance of harm; and independence of research.
Conflict of Interest The authors declare that they have no
Ethical Approval Ethical approval for the LSYPE was obtained
from the National Health Service (NHS) Research Ethics Committee
Informed Consent Parents provided informed written consent at
recruitment and participating young people provided their own consent
once they were age 17 years and over.
Open Access This article is distributed under the terms of the
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://crea
tivecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use,
distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give
appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a
link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were
Ingrid Schoon is Professor of Human Development and Social Policy
at the Institute of Education, University College London and Research
Professor at the Social Science Centre (Wissenschaftszentrum) Berlin.
Her research interests are focused on the study of risk and resilience,
especially during the transition from dependent childhood to
independent adulthood, and regarding social and gender equalities in
attainment, health and well-being.
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