Chasing "impossible dreams" leads to teens ditching education

The dream of being the next Taylor Swift or being crowned Wimbledon champion encourage teenagers to give up on school to chase the "impossible dream," say scientists.

The tiny chance of making huge amounts of cash is enticing more young people to enter or continue an occupation than they would otherwise do so.

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Chasing the big prize means teenagers are blinded to the odds of actually making it but they do not have any contingency plans when reality bites.

A study of globally ranked 14 to 19 year-old tennis starlets found they were more likely to stay in the game rather than quitting and focusing on their education.

Players who face the prospect - albeit a remote one - of earning massive prize money are more likely to stick with it for at least one more year.

And the phenomenon was four times more prevalent among boys than girls.

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This is despite the likelihood of a much more secure career from getting good exam results.

TV dreams

TV and the internet has helped create a small number of superstars who are able to capture a lot of the earnings by reaching consumers around the world, say economists.

For example, Taylor Swift sells millions of records across the world, while countless street performers - who may be only slightly less talented - can only dream of making a living from music.

The study found this is altering people's choices of what occupation to enter - withtennis providing a perfect example of the 'winner-takes-all' labour market.

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Sports economist Dr Kerry Papps, of Bath University, said: "Many young players may be better off devoting more time and effort to their education than in chasing an impossible dream of being the next Serena Williams."

Dr Papps noted a male ranked 100 at age 18 faces less than one-thousandth of a percent chance of earning more than $10 million over his life.

If it were possible to eliminate the effects of extreme prize money, teenage boys would be 20 per cent less likely to continue in tennis from one year to the next.

Female peers would be five per cent less likely to continue.

Tennis teens

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A Wimbledon champion such as Andy Murray - one of the four grand slam tournaments with 128 entrants - typically takes home around 15 per cent of the total prize money pot.

Consequently the very top-ranked players earn vast amounts of prize money each year - while almost everyone else gets relative peanuts.

Some of the same forces that have made Taylor Swift so successful - such as widespread media attention - have led to the top players receiving ever-higher levels of income from sponsorship and endorsements in recent years.

Dr Papps and colleagues found evidence from experimental and observational studies suggest people like gambles with high average payoffs and low uncertainty.

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But they are also attracted to lotteries that might pay off an extremely high amount with an extremely low probability - such as the tennis labour market.

The researchers find teenagers treat the decision to continue in tennis in exactly the same way people choose which horse to back.

Gambling gameIn the first study of its kind they followed every player born between 1977 and 1986 who appeared at least once in an international ranking between the ages of 13 and 30.

Dr Papps said: "Professional sports provides a laboratory for economists interested inunderstanding occupational choice in winner-take-all markets.

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"We contribute to the literature by assembling the first systematic large dataset of potential entrants to a superstar market in which we link youth and adult outcomes to earnings in that domain.

"We study tennis, the only domain to our knowledge in which a large number of annual youth rankings by sex can be linked to professional performance outcomes and career earnings.

"We find that teenagers are more likely to stay in tennis if they face a distribution with a high mean, low variance and high skewness.

"All else equal, boys would be 20 per cent less and girls five per cent less likely to continue in tennis each year if the skewness of an average player's lifetime prize money distribution were reduced to zero.

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"The fact players are attracted to highly skewed distributions is reminiscent of thebehaviour of gamblers at horse races or of lottery entrants.

"Comparing our results with experimental data on modest-sized lotteries we find people exhibit a much smaller preference for skewness when choosing careers.

"Nonetheless the magnitude of our estimates suggests a love of skewness among boys especially can significantly increase labour supply in winner-take-all markets."

The study was presented at the Royal Economic Society's annual conference at the University of Sussex in Brighton.