What do you want to be when you grow up? Why I think we need to ask a different question…
I had a conversation in the car the other day with my 7-year-old, which went like this:
“I don’t really understand what you do, Mum.” She meant work-wise, and she isn’t alone. Many of the adults closest to me, don’t!
I tried to explain that I help people enjoy their work.
Then she asked a very interesting question, “Did you always want to do that?”
The honest answer to that is “No”. I couldn’t possibly have always wanted to do that, because I didn’t even know it was “a thing”.
We typically ask children “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But that inevitably leads to such a restricted range of responses. To respond to “to be” you need to have a noun – so doctor, firefighter, ballerina, singer, footballer etc. spring to mind. But how many of us in adulthood are actually one of those nouns? I do actually have a noun. I’m an Occupational Psychologist – but that doesn’t mean anything to a child so why would they want to be it? Furthermore, many of the types of jobs that are going to be most needed in the future aren't the ones that children get much exposure too, so they end up not knowing about them - jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, economics and environment don't tend of have those accessible nouns and children don't often get to see adults doing those jobs in their typical daily lives.
And some of the nouns we can give ourselves now, didn’t even exist when we were children. I have a very talented friend who makes a living as a blogger, a vlogger and a podcaster (is that a noun yet? It will be soon ;o)!). She could not have said that’s what she wanted to be 30 years ago (or even 15 years ago) as those nouns weren’t event things yet.
At 7 years old, not knowing what you want “to be” is not a problem. But it starts to set expectations that we should know. I have worked with a number of young adults (and even not so young adults) who feel anxious and that it is a failing that they don’t know what they want to be.
Maybe the question worked in the past, when job were more typically defined occupations and that occupation was often for life. But that doesn’t reflect work nowadays. We work for much longer. Technology changes so rapidly it can completely change the nature of certain occupations, perhaps several times, within our working life (I started my career in recruitment, finding graduate job adverts in paper magazines and newspapers and faxing them to relevant recruitment consultants – that task was redundant within 9 months of me starting with the introduction of an online job site and candidate database and I moved to training those consultants to use the database). It is much more acceptable and common to have several different careers – perhaps overtime or even simultaneously (portfolio careers have been on the rise for some time now).
So, I think we need to start thinking about it differently. We shouldn’t focus on what we want to be, but what we want to do, what we enjoy and even our values (what we believe is important in life and the world). That way we can find and even create opportunities to do things we love and feel good because we are making a difference.
Let’s stop asking children what they want to be. Instead, let’s talk to them about things they like doing and how that relates to the type of skills involved in adult jobs. My eldest daughter is very creative and also great with children. She came up with the idea herself that she would like to teach children to draw. As a business plan it probably needs a bit of work, but I am pleased that she is already able to pull two of her strengths together and come up with an idea of something to do that she’d both be good at and would give her a sense of fulfilment.
Although I am sure there are schools that are exceptions, from the young people I have worked with, I get the impression that the careers support teenagers receive is outdated and restrictive. There is no need to pin people down to knowing exactly what they want to be. But they do need to be much clearer about what they are good at and what they enjoy (and the sweet spot of the things they are good at and enjoy) and they need support in thinking about the types of environments, activities and possibly even industries that would enable them to use those strengths.