by Mark Crouter, PCC
Many of us have heard that question from parents, teachers, and friends when we were growing up, and we may have asked that question of our own children. In my own coaching practice, I sometimes hear from clients—even those well into their careers—some version of, “I still haven’t figured out what I want to be when I grow up.” Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you, too, are still wondering what is that thing you’re supposed to be?
So…. What’s the Right Question?
I suggest that it’s not the right question, at least not anymore. Indeed, it’s an essentially 20th Century question, not an appropriate one for many of us in the 21st Century. How did this come to be? Before the Industrial Age, most people didn’t think much about what they wanted to be, because they had so few choices. If your parents were farmers, you were probably going to be a farmer, too. The same goes for tradespersons, artisans, craftspersons, the clergy, and so forth. Occupations tended to run in families. Consider how many family names in English are derived from occupations: Archer, Baker, Brewer, Butcher, Carpenter, Carter, Clark, Cooper, Cook, Dyer, Farmer, Faulkner, Fisher, Fuller, Gardener, Glover, Head, Hunt or Hunter, Judge, Knight, Mason, Merchant, Page, Parker, Potter, Sawyer, Slater, Smith, Taylor, Thatcher, Turner, Weaver, Woodman, and Wright (or variations such as Cartwright and Wainwright).
Some job mobility was possible, usually through the apprentice system, in which someone would work for an experienced craftsperson, learn a trade, gain experience, and gradually move up from apprentice to journeyman to master of the craft. With the advent of the Industrial Age, these long-standing traditions of family occupations gave way to more opportunity, as people moved from farm to factory and from rural to urban environments. Greater educational opportunities further broadened the choices people might make, including the application of scientific knowledge and methods to fields like agriculture, and by extending education through the study of medicine, the law, or other professions.
Even so, most people still expected that a single occupation or career field would define who and what you were, from entry-level to retirement. This was a relic of the apprentice system as well as a reflection of the stability of employment in a range of industries and economic conditions. The growth of labor unions in the 20th Century may have reinforced this expectation, as lifetime employment (based on seniority) was both a goal and an expectation within occupational fields. This was true not only in manufacturing crafts and trades, but also in service fields such as teachers, postal workers, and other public employment. If you continued to gain experience and kept up with knowledge in your field, you could continue to practice your trade, craft, or profession successfully. So whatever you became “when you grew up” was what you could expect to be throughout your working life.
Data from a Bureau of Labor Statistics study that followed baby boomers through most of their careers showed that, on average, those people held 11.7 jobs between age 18 and 48.
Now consider how the world has changed and is changing in the 21st Century. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report that measures the future of work in America, “Nearly 40% of U.S. jobs are in occupations that are likely to shrink or be cut by 2030.”
One study of the Canadian workforce showed that two-thirds of baby boomers entered their fifties holding down jobs they had been in for at least 12 years with the same employer. By contrast, the Generation X population worked an average of 3.2 jobs in the first 12 years of their career, compared with an average of 3.9 jobs for Generation Y over the same span—22 percent more often than Gen X. Based on current trends, noted futurist Rohit Talwar predicted that children today can expect to hold 40 different jobs in ten completely different career paths in their lives.
Think about your own field. If you’re like many workers, the job you’re doing now is probably somewhat or very different from what you were doing five years ago, even if you’re working in the same career field. So it makes sense that five years from now your work will have changed as much or more as in the last five, and that trend will likely accelerate. New opportunities will replace old ones, whether in traditional companies, the gig economy, or some combination. Predicting what work will look like in ten years is nearly impossible; two or three years is a more realistic planning timeframe.
Your personal talents, strengths, and abilities will still be your key resources, but you will have the opportunity—perhaps the necessity—to apply them in new roles, functions, and jobs. And to do that you will need to continually upgrade your knowledge and skills, and not only your technical and functional skills, but your so-called “soft” skills of management, networking, and building relationships.
So it turns out that the original question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” is going to have many answers, some of them you can’t even foresee now. Instead, the right question to be asking yourself is, “What do you want to be next?” Prepare yourself for the next phase of your work life, and understand that whatever that phase is, it’s probably not the last one.
To dig deeper into figuring out and targeting what you want to be next, enroll in one of our courses, like Discover Your Strengths, Get Unstuck and Clarify Your Career, Onward With Insight, or A 4-Step Crash Course to Jumpstart your Job Search & Career.
© Copyright 2020 by Mark Crouter