What to ask kids instead of "What do you want to be when you grow up?"

As teachers or parents we often find ourselves asking children "what do you want to be when you grow up?". In fact, much of traditional careers education focuses on helping students find an answer to this question during their time at school. But the question is deeply problematic.

According to organisational psychologist and Wharton management professor Adam Grant, it firstly "forces kids to define themselves in terms of work". With only 13% of employees worldwide actually engaged in their work, very few of us ultimately find purpose and meaning in our jobs. There are therefore big dangers to identifying too closely with specific jobs. These include a risk of burnout, a lack of purpose if made unemployed, or the high rate of job-related depression.

The second problem with this question is that "it reifies the idea that we all should have one true passion in life". In reality, there are a great many people who aren’t particularly drawn to one particular career path, but still lead perfectly happy lives anyway. In fact, a child leaving school today will have, on average, 30 different jobs in their lifetime across a range of industries. With the rise of the "gig economy" many young people will actually have several different jobs, all in different industries, all at the same time. 

Lastly, Grant says “careers rarely live up to your childhood dreams.” There’s no point in urging kids to focus their energy on how amazing and fulfilling it would be to become an airforce pilot, only to have their dreams crushed when it turns out they fail the eye sight test (as happened to several of my own friends), or to aspire to become a paramedic or doctor, only to find they feel faint at the sight of blood. Equally, many career passions don’t pay the bills, and many of us just don’t have the talent (we've all had those conversations with wannabe footballers, pop stars and YouTubers!). In reality, only a tiny percentage of us ever end up in the job we dream about as a child.

The question we should be asking children instead is: What problems do you want to solve?

This question stimulates a far more open-ended and more exciting discussion with young people about what their values are, and the many ways in which they might someday try to bring about positive change in the world. This question shifts the focus away from specific jobs and towards the kind of person they want to become. Someone who is a compassionate, determined and creative can be any number of things as an adult.

The question also better aligns to the values of young people today. Young people are increasingly thinking about the concepts of 'purpose' and 'value' rather than simply financial reward as with previous generations. They want to find meaningful, purposeful work that creates value for themselves and for society, not just maximise their pay check at the end of the month. 

At Panjango, we never try to narrow children's future options down to a single job or career path. Instead our games and resources are designed to open their minds to new possibilities, broaden their horizons and, crucially, help them develop the practical knowledge and skills that they can apply to the real world problems they are passionate about. 

We want to excite young people about their life after school and get them dreaming about launching a rocket to Mars, developing the sports stars of the future, or saving lives and protecting the planet. With their aspirations driven by a purpose, young people are ultimately far more likely to find meaningful employment, or to create their own.