February 19, 2015

The skills Americans say kids need to succeed in life

What are the best skills for kids to have these days?

In today’s technology-driven world, is it best for children to hone their science and math skills to catch up with other countries that outperform the U.S.? Or is it best for them to be more well-rounded, with strong arts and athletic skills as well? Or perhaps parents should instead focus on encouraging less tangible skills in their kids, such as teamwork, logic and basic communication skills.

What Skills Kids Need to SucceedPew Research Center recently asked a national sample of adults to select among a list of 10 skills: “Regardless of whether or not you think these skills are good to have, which ones do you think are most important for children to get ahead in the world today?”

The answer was clear. Across the board, more respondents said communication skills were most important, followed by reading, math, teamwork, writing and logic. Science fell somewhere in the middle, with more than half of Americans saying it was important.

Rounding out the bottom were skills more associated with kids’ extracurricular activities: art, music (sorry, right-brained people) and athletics. There was virtually no difference in the responses based on whether the person was a parent of a child aged 18 and younger or not.

But we also found some interesting differences:

  • While all Americans were most likely to cite communication and reading skills as most important for today’s kids, women were more likely than men to say this. More women said reading skills (88%) matter compared with men (83%), and there was a similar divide on communication skills (92% vs. 88%). On the other hand, men were more likely than women to say that science and math skills were most important. Among men, 63% said science skills were important – a figure 9 percentage points higher than women who said the same. Men were also more likely than women to say that math skills were important (81% vs. 76%).
  • College-educated Americans were more likely to point to communication, writing, logic and science skills as important when compared with those with a high school education or less. For example, 63% of those with a college degree said science skills were most important, compared with 51% of those with a high school education or less. Some 81% of college grads said that writing skills were most important, compared with 70% among those with a high school degree or less.
What Skills Kids Need to Succeed, by Education
  • Older Americans, the cohort who are likely to be grandparents of today’s children, are more likely than younger adults to say it is important to stick with science and math. Some 64% of adults ages 50 and older say science skills are important to get ahead, compared with just over half (54%) of younger adults. There was a similar gap between older and younger adults when it comes to math skills (83% vs. 74%) and a smaller gap on reading skills (88% vs. 84%). Younger adults put a higher emphasis on logic, with 77% saying it was important for kids to get ahead compared with 71% of adults ages 50 and older who said the same.
  • When we looked at differences among adults based on the political party they identify with, there was as much agreement as disagreement about the necessary skills for today’s youth. Democrats and independents were more likely to say science skills were important, with 61% and 59%, respectively, citing that skill, compared with just 52% of Republicans. Democrats and independents also put a higher value on learning about music, a skill that just 17% of Republicans agree would be helpful for kids to succeed.

On the flip side, Republicans (78%) and independents (77%) were more supportive of logic skills, compared with 70% among Democrats.

  • There were some slight differences when it comes to race and ethnicity. Compared with others, whites were less likely to say that music, arts and athletics were important for children. On each measure, there was at least a 10 point gap between whites and blacks or Hispanics. For example, 36% of Hispanics and 35% of blacks said arts skills were important to get ahead, but just 19% of whites said the same. Similarly, 42% of Hispanics and 34% of blacks said athletic skills were important, but only 20% of non-Hispanic whites said the same. And about a third of blacks and Hispanics, versus only one-fifth of whites, cited music as an important skill.

Note: This survey was conducted through Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults. The survey was conducted Sept. 9-Oct. 3, 2014, among 3,154 respondents and had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points. Topline results can be found here.

Topics: Education, Teens and Youth

  1. Photo of Sara Kehaulani Goo

    is a senior digital editor at Pew Research Center.


  1. Marian2 years ago

    I would like to see research results for what subjects were most helpful for success in occupations. For instance, art was at the bottom of opinions on effects. It seems that many occupations require art ability for employment::decorating, landscaping, photography, illustrating.

  2. Ron Warren2 years ago

    I agree that it would help to know what survey respondents think communication skills include. It’s logical to believe they refer primarily to presentation and writing, but consider other crucial tasks such as effective communication in task-oriented groups and media literacy skills. Both of these are routinely demanded inside (and outside) the workplace, but schools rarely (if ever) offer instruction to help kids develop them.

  3. Yocheved2 years ago

    So why don’t we have classes in communications and communicating effectively for grades k-12? We expect children to pick these skills up naturally through osmosis, yet at the same we deplore our generation for being terrible listeners. We should actively teach students to communicate by integrating social skills and communication skills into the elementary, middle and high school curricula, instead of just assuming kids will figure it out on their own.

    1. Linda Kay1 year ago

      I teach high school English, and communications is a major part of our curriculum. Verbal and written communication skills are taught and reinforced constantly.

  4. halil ayaz2 years ago


  5. William Howe2 years ago

    I see a basic problem in the way the question is worded, which in turns makes the data problematic for me: “…for children to get ahead in the world today.” Why must children “get ahead”? Ahead of what? The assumption seems to be that education should buy into a competitive society in which people strive, a la Hobbes’ “war of all against all,” for competitive advantage. Is that truly what we want for our children? What about something like “…for children to live happy, satisfying, meaningful lives”? And, with that in mind, what about fostering collaboration and an other-orientation in children rather than seeking to promote competitive advantage?

    1. Tracy Adams2 years ago

      Exactly. Also, these are opinions, not longitudinal studies of actual skills…

  6. Peter Ellenstein2 years ago

    This study was designed very badly, and its entire premise “getting ahead” frames education as a job-training pursuit. By accepting that “getting ahead” is the goal of education, we have already lost the educational argument to the idea that the only currency that matters is the dollar and that “success” is “getting ahead” of someone else.

    Where are the other questions that matter so deeply, that need to sit side-by-side with the “getting ahead” question: what are the skills you need to “appreciate your own life”, “understand the world”, “find fulfillment”, “be happy”, “be valuable to yourself, others and the world.”

    Is it any wonder that America ranks #17 on both the UN’s “Happiness Report” and the OECD “Life Satisfaction” index.

    By allowing what is essentially a monetary framing of education, the argument for a comprehensive and experiential education is already lost. The Arts and Humanities and Athletics are, among other things, about experiencing and enjoying life Right Now! And that is a skill that is just as important as anything else.

    PEW: Don’t just be an aggregator of data, context is everything. What is your viewpoint?!

  7. Mary Whisner2 years ago

    Perhaps social studies wasn’t included because it’s seen as a body of knowledge, not a skill. Surely familiarity with history, culture, and society contributes to one’s skills in communication, teamwork, writing, reading, and so on.

  8. Rod Colon3 years ago

    They forgot one … Kids need to to learn how to manage their career as a BUSINESS … we are still too far away from out goal globally!

  9. Jay Oza3 years ago

    What about coding skills? We hear it so much.

  10. Ali Baykal3 years ago

    Did all the participants rank these skillls from the most important to the least one?
    Could all of the (N=3154) participants accomplished this task without shirking to rate any of the skills after the fourth, sixth, seventh etc?
    I understood that 2819 participants (0.90×3154) rated the “Communication” in the first place.
    What is the percentage participants who put the “Communication” in the second rank, third, fourth so and so forth?
    If I got it right 2712 participants (0.86*3154) rated the “Reading” at the second order.
    If my undertanding is correct what is the percentage (or the frequency) of participants rated “Reading” at the first rank, third rank, fourth and so and so forth?
    So I am wondering about the percentages (or frequencies) of each skill at each particular rank but at least for the first (most imporatnt among the 10 skills).
    Is there any possibility taht you can share the original data matrix?
    Many thanks for your concern.
    Ali Baykal

    1. DrW2 years ago

      Agreed. This is very unclear. 80% couldn’t rate communication as most important and 75% rate reading as most important. Hmmmm…..

  11. Christie Moore3 years ago

    Economics and Child Development

  12. Lyn3 years ago

    Can you please define ‘communication’. I define it as the activity of exchanging information by way of verbal and/or written means. I’m therefore wondering why ‘writing’ is listed separately. Wouldn’t it be part of ‘communication’?

  13. Jean Hayworth3 years ago

    Yes, I was surprised that Social Studies or history was not even on the list. I think our kids really need to know the history lessons of the past and certainly understand the workings of our government.
    As head of the Social Sciences at our high school, I stressed the government and citizenship requirements and condensed it into a book. I read the Declaration of Independence to my students and they learned the meaning of words they didn’t know. We went through the Constitution and learned what was there.
    I do believe Civics should have more emphasis but I can understand why it wasn’t included due to the dis-functioning of Congress during the last six years. It is absolutely an embarrassment to watch this disfunction. hay

  14. Packard Day3 years ago

    You forgot Woody Allen’s maxim that “80% of success is just showing up.” In other words, one needs a strong work ethic in which the individual get’s along well with his fellow workers, never whines or complains, makes his deadlines, delivers on his promises, and then seeks out additional responsiblities and duties to succeed in America. Best wishes and good luck.

    1. Gwen Davenport2 years ago

      Well said! I totally agree with this statement!

  15. Josie Holford3 years ago

    I wonder what people mean by the skill of communication?

    Are they thinking of the ability to answer a telephone at the call center and provide help-desk information? Public speaking? The ability to write clear directions on the machine tool package or on a recipe page?

    Or do they mean communication as in the ability to convey information, context and feeling to create meaning in compelling ways that persuade, leave a lasting impression, lead to connection, learning, and changed thinking and behavior? As in effective storytelling for example.

    If the latter then of course there is no need to apologize for art and music. It is in studying music and art that these skills are developed.

    Quality arts program teach a critical set of intellectual habits and skills that are rarely addressed in the other areas of the curriculum. They are critical because they have been identified as crucial to the students future development as thinkers and people. I.e. communicators.


    In other news- asking people what they think about anything absent of context, appropriate information and time to think often leads to results that many find distressing and unfortunate. But then the question was about end-result skills. It was not about curriculum content, habits of mind, process, understanding and appreciation.

  16. Doug Shaw3 years ago

    Interesting stuff thanks for sharing. I think it’s sad that art features so low on the scale. I think we are all artists, our work is our art.

    I am curious what kids would have to say about this, any chance you could run the research by asking a group of children what they think? Why should adults know best about what kids need – that is a question I am asking myself.

    I often learn useful things from children, for example here’s a simple drawing my daughter Keira made to explain ‘how to be kind’.


    I can’t imagine many adults summing up the question as clearly as this, can you?

    Cheers – Doug

  17. Alden3 years ago

    Somewhat surprised that reading wasnt scored higher by everyone as with good reading skills you can learn most of the others . My example is came to the U. S. from another country and passed the GED with a grade 8 educ. because i always read a lot and didnt squeak by , lowest mark was 70 . Not bragging, just on reading .

  18. Sara Mayfield3 years ago

    I agree with the previous comment. Too many people do not understand our system of government or the history of its development. Additionally, the lack of geographic knowledge of the world and the interconnections that bring change: physical, human, and economic: are not understood by too many people.

  19. Tom Bates3 years ago

    I am appalled that social studies was of no consideration. It causes me yet more concern for the future of our once great nation.

    1. Jean Hayworth3 years ago

      I agree that it should have been included and recognize that it is a vital part of a child’s education to know our history and to know how the government works.
      I am a former high school Social Sciences Dept. Head and taught AP US History and government. I required my government students to take a 100 question Citizenship Test the first semester, which they had to pass with a 70 or re-take it. I put it into a book that I published in 2011.
      I am absolutely appalled that the social sciences was not included in this study. Maybe because the Congress is so dis-functional and lacks knowledge of how government should work for all Citizens.