Factors influencing the career decision status of Chinese American youths

Factors influencing the career decision status of Chinese American youths

Pei-Wen Winnie Ma

The purpose of this study was to understand how intergenerational family conflict and relational-interdependent self-construal influence the career decision status of Chinese American youths. Participants were 129 Chinese American youths, with ages ranging from 14 to 21 years. Results from regression analysis indicated that high intergenerational family conflict was predictive of career indecision. High relational-interdependent self-construal, on the other hand, was predictive of career certainty. Implications for counseling and future research are also discussed.


Selecting a career can be a daunting task for many Chinese American youths who must balance their own interests with what is acceptable to their parents (Leong & Serafica, 1995). Career decision making is especially challenging for youths if their immigrant parents believe that only certain careers will lead their children to success. Due to the influx of Chinese immigrants into the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2000), counseling professionals are increasingly likely to encounter first- or second-generation Chinese American youths seeking career guidance, because they tend to present with career concerns rather than personal problems (Tracey, Leong, & Glidden, 1986); therefore, it is important to gain a better understanding of the variables that influence their career decision-making process. In this study, we sought to understand how intergenerational family conflict and relational-interdependent self-construal (defined as the tendency to think of oneself in terms of close others) influence the career decision status of Chinese American youths.

Career decision status is defined as the certainty or indecision about one’s career choice (Osipow, Carney, Winer, Yanico, & Koschier, 1976). Certainty and indecision are two variables that have been designed to assess career decision status. Career certainty refers to one’s degree of certainty of having made a career decision. Career indecision refers to an inability to make a decision about the career that one wishes to pursue (Guay, Senecal, Gauthier, & Fernet, 2003). Career decision status has been used to assess an individual’s career maturity (Crites, 1978; Levinson, Ohler, Caswell, & Kiewra, 1998; Patton & Creed, 2001). Lopez and Andrews (1987) suggested that career indecision was related to inadequate psychological separation of adolescents from their parents. Because many Western cultures consider independence from parents to be a major developmental task, it is likely that career counselors would view those who are not able to make independent career choice as less mature in terms of their career development (Leong, 1991). For example, because Asian Americans are more likely to follow their parents’ suggestion for a career, they may be perceived as less career mature compared with their peers (Leong & Hardin, 2002).

The idea of career maturity can certainly lead to a biased perception of Asian American adolescents. Previous studies suggest that Asian American college students demonstrated career attitudes that were less mature compared with their European American peers (Hardin, Leong, & Osipow, 2001; Leong, 1991). However, Hardin et al. suggested that because the definition and measurement of career maturity were grounded in White middle-class norms, they may not be valid for Asian Americans. Leong and Hardin stated that when examining the cultural validity of career development theories that are based on Western values, variables that are more specific to each culture should be considered.

Because career decision status is an important component of career maturity, the current study was an attempt to understand career decision status from a perspective that is meaningful for Asian Americans. The first step was to identify culturally responsive variables that might influence career indecision and career certainty within cultural group. Due to the strong emphasis on family involvement (Leong & Hardin, 2002) and the collectivistic value orientation (Leong & Tata, 1990) in Chinese cultures, we decided to examine how family and one’s notion of self as inextricably linked to others (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) influence Chinese youths’ career decision status.

The family plays an integral role in the process of Asian American youths’ career development. Tang, Fouad, and Smith (1999) found that family involvement and feedback in career planning have a strong impact on Asian American college students’ career choice. They also suggested that the strong parental influence is associated with more traditionally acceptable career choices, such as engineering, medicine, and computer science, for Asians. Asian Americans, compared with European Americans, are more likely to follow their parents’ advice on career choice (Leong & Serafica, 1995). The reason is likely due to Asian cultural values that emphasize respect and obedience toward authority and older individuals. Because children of immigrant families, however, tend to acculturate to the mainstream culture faster than their parents do (Cheung, 1996), they are more likely to adopt Western values such as self-determination, independence, and separation from one’s family in order to pursue personal interests (Cheung, 1996; Ying, Coombs, & Lee, 1999). As a result, Chinese American youths who are more assimilated often have contradictory values and beliefs compared with their more traditional parents, and intergenerational family conflicts are likely to occur (Lee & Liu, 2001). The difference in values and beliefs does not imply that Chinese American youths who are more acculturated reject Asian values completely (Ying at al., 1999). In fact, they may be struggling to maintain traditional values by respecting the wishes of the family, yet at the same time they may be trying to pursue autonomy and personal goals. Negotiating two conflicting sets of cultural values may lead to confusion about the future and to a lack of career decision.

An individual’s career is often viewed as an expression of the individual’s self-concept according to Super’s career development theory (Super, Starishevsky, Matlin, & Jordaan, 1963). However, career decision is often considered a family matter in Asian culture. The success of the child’s career is a reflection of the family as a whole (Ying et al., 1999). For Asian Americans, career is often an expression of an interdependent self that is connected with close others (Hardin et al., 2001). Markus and Kitayama (1991) constructed the idea of interdependent self-construal, defined as a notion of self that emphasizes connectedness to others as an integral part of one’s identity. This interdependent view of self is prevalent in collectivistic cultures such as those in Asia. Singelis (1994) found that Asian Americans are more likely to have interdependent self-construal than are European Americans.

The concept of interdependent self-construal is further extended by Cross, Bacon, and Morris (2000) who proposed the construct relational-interdependent self-construal, which is defined as the tendency to think of oneself in terms of close others. What distinguishes the interdependent self-construal and relational-interdependent self-construal is the relationships included in the self. According to Cross et al. (2000), in interdependent self-construal, “others” may include in-groups (e.g., employee) and social roles (e.g., eldest son) because these concepts are relevant to East Asian cultures. In the Western context, however, individuals are more likely to include their individual relationships, such a relationship with the mother or with a best friend, as part of self. Therefore, the term relational-interdependent self-construal focuses more specifically on the self as defined by dyadic relationships.

People who are high on relational-interdependent self-construal have been found to be more likely to take into account the needs and wishes of close others when making decisions, such as career choice (Cross, Morris, & Gore, 2002). They are also likely to consult with others for information and advice during their decision-making process. Although we could find no study examining relational-interdependent self-construal with an Asian American population, we believe, that in the context of making a career decision, it is appropriate to use a construct that may capture the sense of a self that is closely connected with others.

Research Question and Hypotheses

Research Question

Considering the previously presented argument, we gathered data to address the question, How do intergenerational family conflict and relational-interdependent self-construal predict career decision status among Chinese immigrant youths?


Hypothesis 1. Youths born in the United States tend to be more assimilated to the Western values of independence and autonomy, which conflict with traditional Asian values of interdependence and obedience to parents; hence, they are more likely to have conflicts with their parents. We hypothesized that Chinese American youths who were born in the United States would experience higher intergenerational family conflict compared with Chinese youths who are immigrants.

Hypothesis 2. Previous research (Tang et al., 1999) suggested that family plays a crucial role in making career choice. Chinese American youths who report high intergenerational family conflict may be unclear about how to reconcile parental career expectations with their own career interests and, therefore, be unable to make a decision. We hypothesized that high intergenerational family conflict would predict career indecision.

Hypothesis 3. Individuals who are high on relational-interdependent self-construal tend to take others’ wishes into account (Cross et al., 2002) when making a decision. Chinese American youths may define themselves more in terms of their parents’ wishes and, hence, make a decision based on family priorities. We hypothesized that high relational-interdependent self-construal would predict career certainty.



One hundred twenty-nine Chinese American youths from a youth employment program were recruited to participate in this study. As a reflection of a requirement for participation in the program, the majority of the youths were from a lower socioeconomic background. The sample consisted of 42.6% boys and 55% girls (2.3% did not state their gender). The mean age was 16.46 years (SD = 1.46), with an age range from 14 to 21 years. More than half (52.7%) of the participants were first-generation immigrants born overseas, and their average length of residence in the United States was 6.2 years. The majority (76%) of the participants reported that their first language was Chinese and that they spoke Chinese (69.8%) or a mixture of English and Chinese (21.7%) at home.


Demographic information was collected from participants regarding their gender, age, birthplace, ethnic background, generation, years living in the United States, first language, and language use. Participants completed three questionnaires: The Career Decision Scale (CDS; Osipow et al., 1976), the Asian American Family Conflicts Scale (FCS; Lee, Choe, Kim, & Ngo, 2000), and the Relational-Interdependent Self-Construal Scale (RISC; Cross et al., 2000).

The CDS (Osipow et al., 1976) measures an individual’s certainty and indecision regarding career choices. The CDS consists of 19 items, 18 of which are answered on a 4-point scale (1 = not at all like me, 4 = exactly like me). The 18 items make up the 2-item Certainty Scale and the 16-item Indecision Scale. (The 19th item is an open-ended question and was not used in this study.) The total score for the Certainty Scale is 8, and the total score for the Indecision Scale is 64. A sample item of career certainty is “I have decided on a career and feel comfortable with it. I also know how to go about implementing my choice.” A sample item from the Indecision Scale is “Several careers have equal appeal to me. I am having a difficult time deciding among them.” The CDS has been the subject of considerable research about the factor structure of underlying dimensions (Rojewski, 1994; Savickas & Jarjoura, 1991). We selected the CDS for this study because it was normed on high school and college populations and it has previously been used with Chinese individuals (Peng, 2001). The internal reliability coefficients (alpha) have been consistently reported in the .80 range for the English version (Hartman, Fugua, & Hartman, 1983; Patton & Creed, 2001). For the Chinese version of the CDS, which is translated from the English version, the alpha coefficients were reported to be .76 for the Indecision Scale (Peng, 2001). The alpha coefficients for our sample were .81 for the Certainty Scale and .76 for the Indecision Scale. Previous studies have demonstrated adequate construct validity (Hartman et al., 1983) and concurrent validity (Hartman & Hartman, 1982; Rogers & Westbrook, 1983).

The FCS (Lee et al., 2000) is used to measure intergenerational conflict between Asian American children and their parents. It is a 10-item, 5-point Likert-type scale assessing the likelihood of each situation occurring (1 = almost never to 5 = almost always) in the family. A sample item is “Your parents tell you what to do with your life, but you want to make your own decisions.” The alpha coefficient in previous research was .88 (Lee & Liu, 2001). Convergent validity and discriminant construct validity were adequately demonstrated (Lee et al., 2000). The alpha coefficient in the current study was .83. FCS-likelihood was found to be positively correlated with socioeconomic status and cultural orientation. Ethnic, generation status and language differences, and parent-child acculturation gaps were also demonstrated (Lee et al., 2000).

The RISC (Cross et al., 2000) is an 11-item scale developed to assess relational self-construal. The items are rated on a 7-point scale (1 = strongly disagree to 7 = strongly agree). A sample item is “When I think of myself, I often think of my close friends or family also.” In previous studies, the alpha coefficient ranged from .84 to .94 (Cross et al., 2002). In the current study, the alpha coefficient was .84. Cross et al. (2000) reported strong evidence for construct, convergent, and discriminant validity. The RISC is positively correlated with measures of commitment to relationship, self-disclosure to others, and social support. Cross et al. (2002) reported gender differences on the RISC scale in four of the six studies.

Translation of Questionnaires

The consent form, instructions, and questionnaires were available in Chinese or English. Bilingual research assistants using well-established back-translation procedures (Brislin, 1980) translated all the documents into Chinese. The Chinese questionnaires were then independently translated back into English to check for semantic equivalency. The first author of this article confirmed the accuracy of the translation.


Surveys were collected during registration at a community-based youth employment program located in New York City. While the students were waiting in line, they were invited to participate in this study. The participants who agreed were directed to a designated area where bilingual research assistants were available to distribute and collect questionnaires.

The participants were asked to complete a packet of questionnaires containing a demographic information form and the CDS, FCS, and RISC. Participants were given the option of filling out questionnaires in either English or Chinese (Florsheim, 1997; Short & Johnston, 1997); 21.5% (n = 28) chose to complete the Chinese version.

Data Analysis

We conducted t-test analyses to assess any potential differences in the study’s variables on the basis of demographic information or the language of the survey. Pearson product-moment correlation analyses were used to determine the relationships among variables in the study. The significance level was set at the .01 level to account for the number of correlations tested. The effect size was set at the p < .05 level. Simultaneous regression analyses were performed to determine the significance of family conflict and relational-interdependent self-construal on career certainty and career indecision.


The t-test analysis comparing surveys completed in Chinese and English indicated that the language of the survey had no effect on the research variables. Therefore, the Chinese and English data were analyzed together. A t test was also performed to determine any differences between U.S.-born versus overseas-born Chinese American youths on intergenerational family conflict. Results indicated that participants born in the United States exhibited a higher likelihood of intergenerational family conflict (M = 30.51 and 25.45, respectively, t = 3.49, df = 121, p = .001) than did the overseas-born participants. We found no differences based on gender among the research variables.

A correlation matrix was also calculated to see how the research variables were related to one another. As shown in Table 1, relational-interdependent self-construal was significantly correlated with career certainty (r = .24, p < .01), and family conflict was significantly correlated with career indecision (r = .28, p < .01). Career certainty was negatively correlated with career indecision (r = -.32, p < .01). Next, we performed simultaneous regression analyses to determine the significance of each independent variable on career indecision and career certainty (see Table 2). As hypothesized, family conflict was significant in predicting career indecision, F(2, 103) = 5.55, p < .01, and accounted for 10% of the variance in career indecision scores (adjusted [R.sup.2] = .08). As hypothesized, relational-interdependent self-construal was significant in predicting career certainty, F(2, 119) = 5.63, p < .01, and accounted for 9% of the variance in career certainty (adjusted [R.sup.2] = .07).


The results of the study indicate that as intergenerational family conflict increases, Chinese American youths are more likely to be indecisive about their career choice. Our results also indicate that relational-interdependent self-construal is related to career certainty. Specifically, the more that Chinese youths define themselves in terms of close others, the more likely they are to feel certain about their career choice.

As hypothesized, increases in intergenerational family conflict predicted career indecision among Chinese American youths in our sample. Intergenerational conflict may result from differences between the parent and child in terms of desired career choice for the Chinese American youth. Specifically, high expectations from parents represent a cultural emphasis on future orientation, family cohesion, financial security, and interdependence (Gordon, 2000). Many Chinese parents pressure their children to pursue careers that will ensure family unity and economic survival (Goyette & Xie, 1999), and such parental pressure may contribute to intergenerational conflict. As the children grow older, the desire to find personal fulfillment in a career versus pleasing the family can lead adolescents to being unable to make a decision about their career choice.

The results of our study also revealed that relational-interdependent self-construal was predictive of career certainty. Participants in our study generally lived at home with their parents and were engaged in the tasks of an early stage of career development (e.g., they might be just exploring options). Because of this context, higher scores on relational-interdependent self-construal among the participants in our study may have reflected a closer relationship to their parents and an inclination to accept their parents’ wishes for the future. In other words, this finding may indicate a tendency for Chinese youths who are more connected to their parents (i.e., have higher scores on relational-interdependent self-construal) to be more in line with their parents’ desires and select a career based on their advice (achieve career certainty).

We also found that U.S.-born participants reported higher levels of intergenerational family conflict. This finding is consistent with previous research on assimilation and family relationships. Specifically, previous research has emphasized that U.S.-born youths tend to be more assimilated than are immigrant youths (Agbayani-Siewert, 1994; Baptiste, 1993; Buki, Ma, Strom, & Strom, 2003; Garcia Coll, Meyer, & Brillon, 1995; Ying, 1999). Being more assimilated contributes to participants tending to be more vocal, assertive, and independent. Such values compete with traditional Chinese norms; therefore, U.S.-born participants experience higher levels of intergenerational family conflict.

Limitations and Future Research Implications

This study has several limitations that merit consideration. First, the participants in this study mainly resided in an urban environment. Therefore, we urge caution in generalizing the findings of our study to Chinese immigrant youths who are from middle-class backgrounds and do not live in an urban area. It would be important for future studies to consider social class difference and possibly compare the data collected from both low-income and middle-class samples.

Another limitation is that we did not collect information on parents’ educational and occupational levels, which are indicative of socioeconomic status. Future studies should explore how socioeconomic status may affect youths’ career decision-making process.

Finally, the data used in the current study were collected on registration day at a youth employment program. Thus, there is a sample selection bias because these students were already motivated to learn more about career. Perhaps in the future, data collection should be done in a high school so that the research findings can be generalized to the high school population.

Counseling Implications

Our findings provide evidence that a cultural framework is important for understanding how Chinese American youths make career decisions. Specifically, counselors should recognize that family dynamics influence their career decision-making processes. When working with Chinese American students, counselors should try not to impose the value of independent career decision making and recognize that interdependent clients are more likely to be open to parental guidance. It would be helpful for career guidance programs to build in a relational component during which clients are able to discuss family and interpersonal issues relating to their career during counseling. For example, counselors might organize a career workshop or group for Asian American youths, with a special focus on understanding the role of family in the career decision-making process and how to balance competing cultural values and obligations when exploring future career options.

Career guidance programs for youths could also include working with families and educating parents and guardians about various career opportunities in the United States. These programs might also incorporate a mentorship network to pair Asian American students with role models from a variety of occupations for information, guidance, and support. Parents and students can work collaboratively with each other and with the mentor to clarify career goals.

TABLE 1 Means, Standard Deviations, and Intercorrelations of the

Research Variables

Variable M SD 1 2 3 4 5 6

1. CDS-C 5.23 1.62 — -.32** -.09 .24** -.02 -.05

2. CDS-I 38.47 7.30 — .28** .02 .00 -.08

3. FCS 27.74 8.48 — .15 .28* -.19*

4. RISC 53.14 10.80 — .10 -.11

5. Years in U.S. 6.24 5.27 — -.13

6. Age 16.46 1.46 —

Note. CDS-C = Career Decision Scale–Certainty (Osipow, Carney, Winer,

Yanico, & Koschier, 1976); CDS-I = Career Decision Scale–Indecision;

FCS = Asian American Family Conflicts Scale (Lee, Choe, Kim, & Ngo,

2000); RISC = Relational-Interdependent Self-Construal Scale (Cross,

Bacon, & Morris, 2000). The mean scores correspond to results on a

Likert-type scale.

*p < .05, **p < .01.

TABLE 2 Summary of Multiple Regression Analyses for the Effects of

Variables Predicting Career Certainty and Career Indecision

Career Certainty Career Indecision

Predictor B SE B [beta] B SE B [beta]

FCS -.02 .02 -.12 .25 .25 .29**

RISC .04 .01 .29** -.01 -.01 -.02

Note. FCS = Asian American Family Conflicts Scale (Lee, Choe, Kim, &

Ngo, 2000); RISC = Relational-Interdependent Self-Construal Scale

(Cross, Bacon, & Morris, 2000).

**p < .01.


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Pei-Wen Winnie Ma and Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University. The authors thank Alison Ching, Tammy Siu, Pei-ying Lin, and Ching-wen Yang for their assistance. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Christine J. Yeh, Department of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, 525 West 120th Street, New York, NY 10027 (e-mail: cy101@columbia.edu).

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