Text by Brad Cini
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
You’ve likely heard the same question over and over again. Teachers, parents and their adult friends, all looking down at you as a child, asking the same question with a sparkle of expectation in their eyes. They wanted to know that we were normal, that we understood the system just as they were taught. Yes we understand. At an early age we learn to think about our future in terms of how we’re going to exchange our labour for money. Our frontal lobes provide the magnificent feat to see and plan into the future, and we’re taught early on to fill this ponderous void with ideals of a job. So how did you imagine trading your labour for income when you were a child? My socially correct response was to become a journalist.
It’s obviously a rhetorical question though, as I don’t think the adults who repeated this rhyme when I was a child really cared for the content of the answer. Be an astronaut, a fireman, or run for president, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you understand the way the system works. Once you reach adulthood you have a role to fill and you better know what that is, so start thinking about it right now. This is an idea that’s introduced in early childhood and perpetuated throughout our whole lives.
Some of us may have rebelled against the idea of competing in the rat race in our teens, as we can start seeing the reality of what a job or career is like for ourselves. We see adults whining about their bosses, struggling to make ends meet with a pay check, and the dreadful feeling that overtakes them on a Sunday night as a new week comes one sleep away. So why would we ever want to follow such a system? Well, it’s the 21st century, there’s lots of shit to buy, and the idea of moving out of home as a teenager is always on the horizon. We can’t rebel forever. Our entire education encourages it, University prepares us for it. Welcome to the work force. Most new people we meet all ask the same question, and eventually we begin to ask others ourselves
“What do you do for a living?”
Now as adults, the idea has now become our reality. Our main purpose, the conduit for our identity and way of life, is now formed through the medium of a job. To understand this cycle in more depth let’s briefly look at the phenomenon called “social conditioning ”.
As impressionable young children, we’re eager to understand and learn about the world. Gifted with young, developing brains, masses of overgrown neurons just begging to be pruned into shape, it’s society who holds the garden sheers. Starting with the closest influence, our parents, other family members, and teachers, reaching to the furthest periphery that dubious information trickles down (advertising and media). All influences coalesce and create our vision of the world, a vision that is, for the most part, based on others’ interpretations of reality. In our developing years our mother yells at us for going near the hot plate, we heed her wise words without testing them. People say death comes from jumping off a building, it seems logical, and we never try it out. Most of the knowledge we accumulate as children is not gathered by firsthand experience, we primarily learn about the world from other people. As you can imagine this has both good and bad connotations.
Social conditioning is good because it allows us to learn about the world in the fastest way possible, without having to test every hypothesis first hand (like putting our hand on the hotplate). It becomes bad, however, when we develop a pattern of learning that is depended on other and which forgoes the potential for our own critical thinking. It becomes bad when systems of thought that should be tested with direct experience are neglected for the opinions of others. So the question becomes apparent; is the system we’re taught, to revolve our future around finding a job, a good or bad thing? There is no clear answer, but what makes such a system of thought troubling is the implicit connection it creates between a career and our perceived happiness.
When we’re taught career conditioning, and the majority of our developing years are designed to prepare us for it, it seems logical that its achievement would bring a sense of happiness of fulfilment. After all, why would everyone lead us down a path of ruin? How could everyone be wrong? Most people are happy… Right?
Take a deep breath followed by another swallow of coffee because to help answer this we going to get slightly academic.
A recent meta-analysis has shown the link between unemployment and suicide to be well established. The two factors of unemployment and suicide share complex relationship that is influenced by many different variables, such as mental illness, social isolation and financial difficulty, but the relationship that exists between them should not be surprising. When we are taught to associate our identity with finding a job, it’s natural for our sense of self-worth to be highly dependent on employment outcomes.
On the other hand, when we eventually fit the mould of career conditioning do we find happiness, or is the old adage that money can’t buy fulfilment actually true? Examining the link between income and happiness can shed some light on the issue. The well-known “Easterlin paradox” states that the levels of happiness in the population have remained constant over time despite sharp rises in GNP. In fact, most researchers agree that once our basic needs are met, more money doesn’t make us happy. The common thread in this body of research suggests that, yes, most people are happier with a job than without one because our survival depends on generating income, but over and above our basic human needs, a career is not likely to lead to fulfilment. And accumulating more money, for the sake of… just accumulating more money, will not make the average person happier.
Accordingly, it appears that the system we’re taught does not lead to any sort of deep fulfilment. In fact, I would argue that it makes any sort of fulfilment or life satisfaction very hard.
Truth is, the whole socially conditioned system that starts with “what do you want to be when you grow up?” isn’t a question that reflects fundamental human nature, it represents a social belief based on our capitalist culture. Yes, from a utilitarian point of view we have to follow the economic system we are entrenched in (the majority of us trading labour for income), but entangling our identity and mission in life with developing a career is just plain detrimental to our personal development and potential. We’re not taught to find passion and pursue joy, we’re taught to get a job. Being conditioned into focusing on a career sets a concrete path for us to follow on our way as developing humans. But stop and think for a second - is this your path.
No. It’s someone else’s path. Society laid the bricks for you, you cemented the mortar.
I would like to see us start to change the question. Instead of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I would like to ask questions that are in line with developing our potential and moving towards fulfilment.
“What are you passionate about in the world?”
If you didn’t have to trade your labour for income, what the hell would you do? Unless you’re already one of the very rare people that do what they love, you need to work on this question. By untangling our identity and self-worth from the monotony of the work place we can create space to move towards finding our path. On a final note, don’t mistake the phrase finding your path with finding a destination. Finding your path is a lifelong pursuit, where the very act of searching and exploring becomes its own reward in self-discovery and growth. Happy exploration.
 A “meta-analysis is a statistical technique that combines multiple studies which attempt to answer the same hypothesis. In the social sciences, a meta-analysis is generally accepted as the highest level of evidence.
 Milner, A., Page, A., & LaMontagne, A. D. (2013). Long-term unemployment and suicide: a systematic review and meta-analysis. PloS one, 8(1), e51333.
 Easterlin, R. A. (1974). Does economic growth improve the human lot? Some empirical evidence. Nations and households in economic growth, 89, 89-125.
 GNP stands for Gross National Product, being the value of all products and services produced in one year by the citizens of a country.
 Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2013). Subjective well-being and income: Is there any evidence of satiation? : National Bureau of Economic Research.