The Playful Den


What do you want to be when you grow up?

Why are we so obsessed with asking kids what they want to be when they grow-up?

What do you want to be when you grow-up? We’ve all been asked. It’s one of those common questions kids are asked, partly for titillation of what they’ll come back with and partly, if you have an invested role in their future because you really want to know and you want them to get on the track to pursuing a job that will make them successful. 

But why are we so obsessed with life’s purpose being about a job? Why does so much of our commentary and observations on kids’ early skills and interests become projected into a future cast of what they may or not work as an adult? I propose that childhood today has gradually morphed into being seen as a foundation for figuring out your career and what job a child might be good at when they are an adult. How can that be possible when you’re 5 or 9? And doesn’t this close down opportunity rather than focus it? 

I should say that I don’t think pondering and even manifesting your career is wholly unimportant. We spend a lot of time at work and having a job which inspires you and makes you feel good as well as affords a comfortable lifestyle is undoubtedly significant in how we feel. Plus, it’s important that all kids are encouraged and supported to have visibility on opportunities and expand their vision of what is possible beyond what might be limited inspirational resources. But despite all that, from a UK perspective at least, I think we’ve taken that too far, or perhaps too literally. I believe we place too much emphasis about future success on what job you may or may not get rather than what person you might become. 

I’ve had a job since I was 12 (that’s likely illegal now). My first job was shuffling the papers and getting them ready for the paper boys (it’s suddenly only dawning on me there were no paper girls – there was a lot of cycling around on dark mornings, another thing unavailable for girls) and then I would vacuum the shop and tidy the shelves. All for the ripe sum of about £2.50. I don’t even think I was asked to do this, I think I just started to go to the newsagents with my brother who had a paper round and started helping out. I was literally playing shop, and getting a couple of quid and a Push-Pop to boot. Result! I soon realised I had to move on from my newspaper shuffling career and because I think the shop owner pointed out I wasn’t really needed or hired and that I just kept turning up, hoovering and waiting for £2, so I was promoted to washing hair and sweeping up in a salon where I stayed for a good couple of years, and let me just put this out there, I was the best junior a salon owner could hope for. I loved that job, I was punctual, gave everyone a head massage at the sink because I quickly learned this was a guaranteed personal tip in my pocket and I now know as an adult woman is the highlight of going to the salon and forking out the million pounds it now costs to have highlights and being devastated when the head massage part lasts all of 3 seconds, it’s akin to torture. At the salon I found myself to be proactive getting the stations ready for the next client promptly and it was here I had my first real taste of proper money. I can still recall how it felt to see a purple note in my pay packet at the end of the weekend. This was quite the step up from being paid in Push Pops. I would walk to town with one of the stylists and go straight to McDonald’s for a chicken nugget extra value meal, £2.88 (I still sometimes find myself asking for an extra value meal in McDs as it’s so ingrained in me, but can confirm this has not been available since about 1998) before browsing the make-up aisles in Boots and getting some Number 17 make-up (Heather Shimmer lippie always). Later in the week, after school I would take the remaining funds into the building society with my little blue book and get a stamp showing my savings increasing a few pounds at a time. Then I hit the big time employment age,  I turned 16 and was now able to consider jobs with employers unwilling to break child employment laws. After a very brief and unsuccessful stint waitressing (not a core strength of mine and generally involved snogging and dropping food on people) I commenced what would become a long standing career at the local leisure centre as a pool lifeguard. I standby this being a key moment in shaping who I became and a foundational chapter in my coming of age story. It is one of the best jobs I believe you can have as a 16 year old; it’s well paid in comparison to other teen jobs, you get an actual qualification that could save someone’s life and you experience genuine responsibility. Plus in the throws of council leisure centre life, I witnessed some eye-boggling interactions with the general public from pulling out kids to catching perverts in the changing rooms and waiting for them to be arrested (ewww). I continued pool lifeguarding all the way from 16 and into my early 20s working at pools in my university town and using it to fund adventure after adventure. 

When I was a kid, my response to the infamous ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ question was very consistent – a Blue Peter presenter and/or a journalist. Which as I sit here reflecting now, would have been excellent career pursuits for my skills and interests! I believe I would have been very successful at either of those and I wonder why I veered away from these goals? I had spent so many years answering the question with these jobs, why did I then not move toward them? I wonder if as I was sucked closer and closer toward the realm of adulthood, I fell foul to society’s conditioning that it was time to put down the childish dreams and get real about life. I wonder if being asked this so many times and seeing the responses – gentle laughs and eye rolling ‘she knows what she wants’, didn’t actually feel like encouragement but were internalised by me that I was being ‘unrealistic’. I wonder if establishing these ideas so early on led me to believe that they lived in childhood imagination, something now I was becoming a ‘proper grown-up’ it was time to put away. There is even early evidence of tween Emma making her own moves toward these goals; I recall year 10 work experience, when everyone went off to local businesses, I went to the big city – London no less –  as I had arranged all by myself, to do my work experience in teen girl magazine, Bliss. My parents, who were happy to fan the flame, took me down there. The careers advisor at the time said this of my exotic work experience pursuits: “you can do that, but we can’t support you, it’s not local, it’s not what people are expected to do”. It was a gut punch, I thought they would be so impressed, the reality couldn’t be further from it. I was discouraged from thinking and dreaming too big. Again. I wonder if that was it – the reason my pursuit of a career in journalism fizzled out? Because I’ve never stepped foot in a magazine, paper or journalism environment since then. 

I went on to take a degree in Advertising and Marketing at Bournemouth University based on 3 arbitrary factors, 1) I had good grades in English and Media Studies, but felt like pursuing English wasn’t vocational enough (I was a pragmatic 18 year old) and 2) I overheard a girl at college who I thought was really cool and had excellent style saying she was desperate to get into the course, so if she thought it would be good I figured it must be and 3) it was in a town on the coast – I could relocate from the Midlands and live by the actual sea! Sign me up. Despite choosing a vocational course, as I veered closer to real-life adulting, I still had no idea what to do and like many people fell into my research career via a chance work placement. It was a happy accident for me luckily, I suited qualitative research and went on to have an enriching enjoyable career. 

On reflection I wish I could have had more conversations and a greater variety of questions that helped me manifest and visualise who I wanted to be as much as focus on what I was going to do. Things like what I found fun and why it’s important to keep those pursuits going – I’d like to have discussed what I wanted to play when I grew up. I can see how, like most adults, play time started to decline as the pursuit for this ideal dream job and career got more intense. Combining the two would have been wise and also interesting to see the result. I am 39 now and still find myself wondering what I want to be when I grow-up. Ironically, or perhaps not, I now find myself dreaming of having a magazine column and returning to writing, a love I’ve always had, desperate to figure out how to make a living from it. 

Despite the rapidly changing worlds of employment and the new ways to make an income today, most of us still seem to think about career as a rigid, linear experience. There are lots of people searching for the ‘dream job’. Many people box themselves into an industry, discovering once they’re in and established it doesn’t feel right, but can be too risky or complex to start all over again. Others just want to turn up, do a job, earn a decent income and get home as quickly as possible to enjoy their lives outside of work. Not everyone has this yearning that I have to find meaning and purpose through their work. I have experienced making dull work fun to pass the time and on the other end of the scale have had the pleasure of doing work so mentally stimulating to me that it comes above anything else in life. Both ends of this spectrum were unsustainable for me. 

In my study of play in adulthood, it appears that for lots of people there comes a point when we stop putting play front and center of our existence, and work takes center stage, this can also be other life stages like parenthood. And when we stop playing, we close down opportunities, we make life smaller and smaller until we can’t even imagine anything more for us. We don’t even know what we want anymore. Perhaps now is when we need support and encouragement and to be re-asked – what do you want to be now you are grown-up? 

These days I don’t ask my kids what they want to be when they grow-up, I don’t want them to overthink it because there are so many jobs both them, their parents and their teachers are completely unaware of. And as someone in the business of making up her own job, with social media and endless platforms and the sweet combination of passion, talent and consistency you can think even further outside the boundaries of what is possible. You don’t have to pick from a list of jobs and careers, you can make up your own. I keep the focus on making sure they keep playing, off as much as on them and check that I am having more conversations about what lights them up than I am about their grades, chores, homework and higher education plans. And I try to talk to them about the person and life they want as much or more than the career they’ll have. Things like if they’ll want to be outdoors a lot, be kind, volunteer, live near their friends, travel. 

I think it’s probably only a tiny percentage of people who know their career destiny from a young age. Everyone else has to set off on a journey that asks us to make decisions about it before we really know who we are or what kind of lifestyle we want. To keep that journey moving in the direction that is right for us, we must keep playing. Once we step outside of work and step into the portal of play, we are truly free. It equips us to find new opportunities which enable us to have ideas, make decisions and move in the direction that we want to go, not what we believe is right. 

Sometimes the kids will tell me their future plans unprovoked. My daughter wants to train to be a dancer. My eldest son wants to build a skatepark and have a business sponsoring talent and hosting events. I respond to their dream musings like they’ve just told me they’re going to take a degree in medicine or other socially approved ‘sensible’ route. I take them seriously. Because these things are possible, anything is. No one really believed me when I said I’d be a Blue Peter presenter, so I didn’t bother trying. I tell the kids they are going to need to play their way all the way to their dreams, because perhaps these early manifestations are their dream careers but maybe, and possibly more likely, these intuitive thoughts are a play portal, a stepping stone and jumping off point to make decisions, find anchors and a place to stay in place that continues to see possibilities. 

It strikes me since reflecting on the ‘what do you want to be?’ question, that in asking it we assume there is an end point when this is not in fact the case. You get the job, boom, you win! Game over. Well not so much given today’s kids are going to live for the longest and could be working for well over 60 years. 60 years! It’s a lot of time when we think about it like that. Enough to have 5-6 careers which is what is predicted they will do with their time. So perhapsan evolution of this question could instead be to encourage an early understanding of growth, expansion, chapters, zigzagging and mishmashing skills. When I was a children’s researcher many kids would tell me things like – I want to be a doctor and a Gaming YouTuber. We now live in a reality where those rather different roles could actually coexist. 

I can see how it would have been advantageous to enter adulthood with a perspective that maybe I’ll work intensively here for a bit, save for some time out and fun and then zigzag over there. But this was not the perspective of work when I was child. And I know not everyone is in favour of the ‘everything is possible’ attitude given that so many barriers exist everywhere, I think that this mindset actually has some renewed relevance in this ever changing world where, well, anything is possible.