Why I Don’t Ask Kids What They Want to Be When They Grow Up

Photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”. A question that came up over and over again as a child growing up in the 80’s and culminating in the late 1990’s around high school graduation.

“How the hell do I know?”, I thought to myself. I don’t even know who I am or what my options are. Doctor, lawyer, engineer etc. were the standard default answers given to relatives, to appease cultural expectations. Giving such a reply brought some breathing room to the interaction. They were safe answers, insofar as the follow-up grilling would be limited.

Teachers. Parents. Friends. Family members. So many curious minds would put young people like me on the spot, expecting a quick answer. I didn’t have one then and still don’t have a concrete answer even in my early 40's.

Photo by Ethan Sykes on Unsplash

Implicit in the question of what kids want to be in the future is a presumption that there will be one conclusive career choice for them. I think it’s an unfair leading question, to imply that kids should know at a very young age, who they are and what work they want to do for a lifetime. There seems to be an expediency around career selection on the part of the people posing this question. I feel that it is wrong and unfair to kids, to put them on the hot seat like this.

I propose a gentler approach in inquiring with youth about their career or work ambitions. We ought to emphasize that life (and often careers) aren’t linear progressions. There can be many peaks and valleys in the journey. Some dead-ends and some detours too. Painting this kind of picture for young people is perhaps a more realistic portrayal of how their career path may take shape.

Automation. Robotics. AI. Downsizing. Offshoring. The gig economy. These are all influences that are reshaping the workplace in an ongoing manner. The only constant in many fields is rapid change. As such, I’d rather counsel young people to focus on being adaptable to such changes that they will surely be confronting in their futures. It is very unlikely that many young people entering the workforce will be with a single employer or in a single industry, for the duration of their working life. That is so pre-1980’s. The world, technology and work is simply evolving too fast.

Photo by Andy Kelly on Unsplash

There are countless adults who struggle to find a truly good career or workplace fit over the course of their working lives. Dissatisfaction with bosses, employers, colleagues and vocation is sadly commonplace. And so, it’s ok to move around and try new jobs or even pursue self-employment. We spend so much time working, that it is important to hopefully enjoy at least some aspects of your work (or at the very least be able to tolerate it). Workers in their 30’s and 40’s often have to (by choice or not) reinvent themselves and jump from role-to-role. Certain jobs and careers can be precarious and/or unfulfilling. Some bosses suck. Such is life. What is key is the ability to be adaptable, move on and find a better situation.

Why not encourage our youth to put an emphasis on building up transferable skills. This would in turn give them greater options in their work lives. Being stuck in a dead-end job is arguably one of the worst places to be in life. There are negative consequences related to feeling “trapped” at a workplace or in a job you hate.

So, let’s try to instill a love of lifelong learning in order to help youth keep pace with the future ahead. So called soft skills will likely play a great role in their ability to navigate the workplaces of the future. Authentic skills in teamwork and all forms of communication are probably going to be a major part of one’s ability to adapt to changing work environments. Perhaps even more important, development of emotional intelligence might be vital in navigating and engaging with various online communities, across different platforms.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”. The question is flawed. Those asking need to stop putting kids on a hot seat that is unfair to them. Let them discover their interests, hobbies, passions and most importantly, who they are. Then, open their eyes to as many jobs and careers that might be a suitable match for them. Shining a light on career possibilities is kinder and gentler than shining a bright and hot spotlight on them. Being reasonably patient with the process will hopefully get them on a career path that is fulfilling to them.

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