Let’s Stop Asking Children What They Want to Be When They Grow Up

Steven Hopper
Oct 20 · 5 min read
Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Did you know exactly what you wanted to be when you grew up?

Chances are, probably not.

I know I didn’t.

Yet society puts a lot of pressure on the younger generations to have an answer to this question. I know this because I used to be a teacher and I saw how it dictated the focus of learning every day in the classroom.

“College and career readiness” is the current education movement that, although has good intentions, I would argue is actually doing a disservice for our youth.

How do I know this? Because I’m no longer a teacher and because all of my friends have switched jobs several times throughout their twenties, too.

And we millennials are not alone. According to a study by Linkedin, job hopping has nearly doubled over the last twenty years. Just take a look at the graph below and you’ll see the rising trend.

Linkedin.com

“A college degree used to slot you into a 40-year career. Now it’s just an entry-level point to your first job,” says Guy Berger, the LinkedIn economist who analyzed the career trajectories of 3 million college graduates.

And it’s not just switching from one job to another, the study also found that younger generations are switching entire industries.

There are many theories why younger generations are more likely to switch jobs and industries — the rebound in the economy over all, the growing remote work and gig economy, or simple career dissatisfaction and changing interests.

While researches can’t pinpoint the answer, I can tell you from my experience why I switched careers and why it’s important to stop asking children to think about work as a lifelong career when they grow up.

I was a teacher for eight years. I loved teaching and what I did, but the world of education was all I knew. Going from being a student all my life to then being a teacher meant that I lacked any understanding of what lie beyond the walls of a classroom. I simply followed my passion for learning languages and decided the only way to make money from that was to become a teacher.

Then, over the past few years, I realized that teaching is an incredibly challenging career. Not only because of the work it involves, but because of the schedule and time commitment. While people are envious of teachers for their summer vacations, I saw friends around me have other perks that I wanted in my daily life — for example, the ability to sleep in every now and then or the ability to travel for work.

I knew that teaching as a profession was never going to change — or at least very quickly — so I thought maybe I could explore other careers. Now I’m a business consultant and while many people give me strange looks and ask how in the world I could have switched from education to business, the answer is that really they have a lot more in common than people think. And the truth is, I’m just as happy doing this job as I was as a teacher.

The same goes for many friends of mine who struggled right out of college to find a job they loved or to find a job that suited their preferred lifestyle.

School is just a fake environment that shields students from getting exposed to the real world and what jobs actually are like. Yet society expects that we graduate high school, go into college, declare one major, and then find a job within that field to stick with for our entire careers?

This life trajectory just doesn’t make sense anymore.

With technology and the internet, there are better ways to connect and learn outside of school than inside it. I remember students of mine connecting with people who shared their interests from all over the world and teaching themselves new skills that schools didn’t offer. And now, as a consultant, I find that most of my job is simply having the intelligence and skills to learn and apply new information for my client and not actually having a business degree.

Not to mention, the rate of change in society is accelerating and entire industries are being disrupted every day. But schools can’t keep up with this and still teach outdated information and skills.

In fact, the World Economic Forum conducted an assessment of the current landscape of jobs and what the future could look like. Although these types of studies can only offer predictions, there is significant evidence of current disruptive technologies and societal changes that will lead to momentous changes in the way we work. In sum, the study highlights that many jobs of the future don’t yet exist.

By asking children what they want to be when they grow up, we’re asking them to limit their imaginations and give an answer that older generations know and expect.

So what should we do instead?

1. Give children more real-world experiences

Schools should promote exposure to a variety of career fields and experience working in the real world before committing to a singular job choice. As a former high school teacher, I think there’s a huge opportunity to ensure that students don’t just sit in a classroom all day but instead must go out and connect with the real world to learn about their passions and skills.

2. Learning should be about skills, not job preparation

Schools should promote learning new skills and connect those to the real-world, especially institutions of higher learning. The only way to keep up with accelerating change is to become a motivated learner who can adapt with the change and pivot into new jobs as technology disrupts ways of working. So why not re-think the idea of “majoring” in a degree and having one lifelong career?

3. Ask better questions

Of course we still want to help guide and mentor our youth toward a happy, prosperous life. The best way to do that is to ask different, more helpful questions. Try asking questions like “what are you passionate about?” and “what do you love to learn?”. Then, we can point children in the direction of jobs and experiences that can help them decide the next move to grow their future.


Steven Hopper

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Stories of a former high school teacher, now business consultant. Husband. Travel fanatic. Obsessed coffee drinker. And all-around nerd.