What Do You Want To Be When You Grow Up?

April Fool!

The other day my daughter, Baby(1), started a new year at nursery school. I say “the other day” but it was April 1st. Hold the April Fool’s jokes, please. In Japan, April 1st is the day when the school calendar rolls over; when students graduate; when thousands of newly hired graduates in black suits clog the sidewalks and elevators in Tokyo’s business districts; when CEOs give paternal speeches, concluding (no doubt through gritted teeth) that they have great hopes for each and every youngster. Within a few months, 32% of them will have quit, 17% will have died of overwork, and the rest will be lounging around by the hot water pot (Japanese equivalent of the water cooler), having figured the world of work out. I just made that statistic up, but here’s a real one: Surveyed in April 2012, 60% of new recruits said they hoped to stay with their employer for the rest of their working lives. By the time autumn rolled round, that percentage had dropped to 31%.

As an adult, it’s tough figuring out what you want to do with your life. But children always seem sure of what they want. When was the last time you asked a kid, “So what do you want to be when you grow up” — and they didn’t know? Every year The Marist Poll surveys young Americans, ages six to twelve, on this subject. It’s interesting to see how the answers change over time.

In 2011, “astronaut” fell out of the Dream Job Top Ten for the first time in forty years.

Julie Payette: “I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut. When I was in elementary school, when I was ten years old and people were asking me what I wanted to do I said oh, I’d like to be an astronaut. Because at the time the Apollo mission was sending people to the moon and I saw that in some magazines for kids and I just wanted to do the same.”

2011 Dream Job Top Ten (ages 6-12)

1.    Doctor
2.    Vet
3.    Athlete
4.    Pop Singer
5.    Firefighter
6.    Police Officer
7.    Pilot
8.    Actor
9.    Spy
10.    Model/Dietitian

What’s happened to our sense of mission? Manifest Destiny, art thou gone like the snows of last winter? When did we stop dreaming of the stars? etc., etc. Everyone’s got a pet theory about this. Me, I put it down to encroaching secularism. Counter-intuitive? Not really. Our culture’s relentless focus on the tangible, the material, the scientifically proven or at least the scientifically provable, discourages the pursuit of the seemingly impossible. Sure, the first man in space was a Soviet citizen; but as we all know by now, Soviet Communism was a religion as fanatical as any, built around a dream even more unlikely than the Second Coming. They had that old-time sense of mission coming out of their ears. I’m not sure we do anymore.

For a slightly different set of ambitions, look at the 2012 Kuraray poll of Japanese first-graders. Unlike Marist, Kuraray breaks the answers down by sex. Boys in the left-hand column, girls in the right-hand column:

1 Professional athlete  1  Baker / patissier / chocolatier
2 Police officer  2  Performer / tarento / singer
3 Driver (lorry? Taxi? Shinkansen? unspecified)  3  Florist
4 A TV / anime character  4  Nursery school teacher
5 Firefighter  5  Nurse
6 Artisan / craftsman  6  Beautician / hair stylist
7 Chef / cook / sushi chef  7  Pet shop worker / pet groomer
8 Patissier / baker / chocolatier  8  Ice-cream shop worker
8 Scholar / professor / scientist  9  Doctor
10 Entrepreneur  10 Teacher
Looks like soft porn, but is actually aspirational pop for first-grade girls!


Look at that! “Entrepreneur” makes it onto the boys’ top ten list in Japan. But not in the good ol’ US of A. As for the girls’ top ten list, the less said the better, really. But I wonder what the American girls’ list would look like if the data were broken down.

A couple more points of interest from this survey. “Astronaut” came in at #14 on the boys’ list, its highest ranking ever. I attribute this to the Hayabusa effect. And, for the girls, one out of every three who wanted to be a performer or “tarento”(2) cited the girl group AKB48 as an inspiration.

Meanwhile, some children in Britain are still dreaming of the stars. A 2012 survey conducted by the Royal Institution’s L’Oreal Young Scientist Centre (no bias there, obviously) found that the top ten dream jobs for children were:

1. Professional Athlete
2. Performer
3. Secret Agent
4. Firefighter
5. Astronaut
6. Veterinarian
7. Doctor
8. Teacher
9. Pilot
10. Zoo Keeper

This list looks more wholesome than the American equivalent. For some reason I find the idea of children aspiring to be actors uniquely soul-destroying. How much nicer to see “zoo keeper” and “teacher” up there along with “astronaut.”

Of course, the British press took the survey as an excuse to wail and gnash its teeth about the mismatch between children’s aspirations to science-based careers and their actual lack of interest in science and math.

What did you want to grow up to be when you were a child? Are you doing it now?

Me, I’m lucky. I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer, and I am one! But only thanks to my readers. No one achieves anything in a void.

With this in view, maybe it’s just as well that American kids have given up on becoming astronauts, since our government does not seem disposed to accommodate them, and it will be a long time before private space companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences can stand on their own two feet without Uncle NASA’s supporting hand.

Back at Baby’s nursery school, they produced a glossy booklet with pictures of the graduating four- and five-year-olds and reproductions of their handwritten ambitions. One little boy wants to be Kamen Rider. A little girl, inevitably, wants to be a patissier(3). Another little boy wants to be a “dinosaurer,” which sounds rather thrilling. There’s a boy who wants to be a shinkansen driver, and another whose dream is to be a clerk at Ito Yokado (a big Japanese supermarket chain)–quite achievable, I should think. I hope all of them get what they’re dreaming of. Especially Kamen Rider.


1. Not her real name.

2. Tarento: a Japanese TV personality whose job is laughing at unfunny jokes and appearing on panels at quiz shows designed to humiliate the participants. Often a second career.

3. This may sound like an unlikely career for so many girls to latch onto. I’m using patissier as the translation of “cake-ya-san,” literally “Ms. Cake Shop.” In Japan there are more cake shops than there are bakeries. What do you call someone who works in a cake shop?

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  1. I wanted to be just about everything under the sun, at least for a few days before moving onto the next daydream – Astronaut, President, Zoologist, Journalist, Lawyer, Veterinarian, Athlete, Librarian, Geologist, Archeologist, Historian, Conqueror of the World – you name it. I was never able to settle the matter and ended up having half a dozen different majors in college. I guess the only possible way to satisfy my ODD (Occupational Decision Disorder) personality was to become a writer. That way I could be all these things.

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