September 23, 2013

What do you want to be when you grow up?

"Old Economy Steve" sums up a lot of life's troubles for Gen Y.
When I was a kid, there was a question I heard constantly. Every year, at least, our teachers made a production out of asking us. Our grandparents asked every visit. Our parents, our uncles and aunts, babysitters... everyone.

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

When I was small, I had an answer. I wanted to be a mommy. But that wasn't good enough for my Baby Boomer teachers and parents, my Gen X babysitters. They were modern people, who refused to accept a little girl's limited understanding of gender roles. I could be anything. I could be anything I wanted to be.

When I got older, I read "Sedako and the Thousand Paper Cranes," and decided that when I grew up I wanted to cure leukemia. I wanted to put on a white coat and spend all day in a lab, looking through microscopes and testing drugs on monkeys. Then I learned more about monkeys, and I wasn't so sure I wanted to do that anymore.

So I decided I wanted to be president. I was going to go to law school, to become an organizer, to make changes in my community and country that would benefit everyone.

When I was a teenager, having the time of my life, politics and law school sounded like too much work. When people asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I told them if worst came to worst I could wait tables to pay for art supplies.

It wasn't really an answer. It was the most practical answer I could give. And now, I'm a stay at home parent.

I'm a Gen Y mom. A Millennial mom.

We're an odd bunch, us Gen Y mothers. As the oldest of the Generation Y crowd hit thirty, we find ourselves confronted by expectations of adulthood that don't seem to fit. We've watched Gen X grow up and cope with changing social standards, and we've hesitated.

They didn't make adulthood look very promising.

They made movies like "Reality Bites," about the illusion of adulthood and redefining personal success. They changed the standards regarding marriage and cohabitation and hyphenated last names. They embraced birth control, becoming "one and done" parents and heading back to work.

And then there's us.

Plenty of stories have been written about the Millennial's unwillingness, or inability, to grow up. About how long we live at home. About how many of us don't bother to get driver's licenses. About how apathetic we seem to be.

It's as though when everyone asked us, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" we all glibly retorted that we had a crappy job back-up plan. And we all just went ahead and focused on those.

As always, reality is more complicated.

Yes, we came of age in an economy where we had little hope of ever earning at our parents' potential.
Yes, we came of age in a society that requires us to get accredited four year degrees to qualify for jobs waiting tables and answering phones.
Yes, we go into the world loaded with debt in a time when our grandparents are still in the workforce, still occupying jobs we want, still working to save for retirement when their entire life's saving may have been lost.
And yes, we all have friends we've sent to war, friends who've never come back.

Most Gen Yers are waiting to have kids. We go to college, work, get our Master's degrees or even Ph.Ds, work, establish a career, then get married. And then start considering if it's time to have kids. And by then, we're hitting thirty- our healthiest child-bearing years already behind us.

Nobody asked us, "When you grow up, how do you want to support yourself until you finally manage to find a job that utilizes your degrees, personal skill sets, and passions?" They asked us what we wanted to be. And most of us, in the secret dark holes in our hearts, we know we're not what we wanted to be. We're baristas working through grad school. We're nannies, waiting for that teaching job to open up. We're waiting tables, using our degrees in history to strike up conversations with patrons. We're car salesmen with degrees in gender studies.

It's not what we expected. We're not what we expected.

And more importantly, our sense of stability. It's not there.

That's because stability, as we know it, doesn't exist. People don't go to school, major in something, and then start a career in that same thing, working in the same field until they retire. That isn't the way it works.

When the Baby Boomers came of age, they could get a job, advance in their career, and retire without having to learn a new trade for fifty years.

They could say, "When I grow up, I want to be an inventor." Lo and behold, they grew up and became inventors, building machines that eliminated half the industrial age jobs still lingering in post-computer America. And when they tired of that, they retired. Or suddenly lost their retirements when the banks failed and found themselves plowed under the wave of technology, fighting their kids and grandkids for jobs that could pay their bills.

Fifteen years ago, the Gen Xers turned career longevity on its head, with an average career length of seven years. Not job, career.

They could say, "When I grow up, I want to be a musician." And they couldn't really become professional musicians, most of them, but they got jobs in music. Teaching music. Writing about music. Producing music. And after a decade, they decided they wanted more stability, and they took comfortable desk jobs that somebody with a decade of work experience could do, and when they started to tire of that they started a non profit providing musical instruments to kids in Uganda.

And us Millennials, we're still asking ourselves, "What do I want to be when I grow up?"

I look at my children, kids already familiar with technologies that didn't even exist when I was a kid, and I wonder what on earth I can teach them that will apply to their own lives. Their own personal economy.

And I refuse to ask them that question.

The jobs my friends are taking now are split. Some work in whole fields that didn't exist when we were born. When our parents asked us, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" nobody could have anticipated the response, "I want to design iOS aps!" or "I want to run a GMO free vegan cupcake truck!"

And even more of my friends work jobs that we were led to believe were somehow "below us," considering our degrees. Twenty seven year olds with degrees in non profit management, waiting tables at mid to high end restaurants. Grocery store baggers with degrees in Russian Literature. Wedding photographers with degrees in World War II history. Bartenders with degrees in fine art.

And the third group, the smallest group, are those who did it. Who decided when they were barely old enough to plan ahead that they wanted to be engineers or biomedical researchers, who worked as hard as they could through high school, made it into good colleges, and then got themselves advanced degrees in their field, and eked out a job in that field. And those Gen Yers are few and far between. Those are also pretty much the only Gen Yers with job related benefits- 401Ks, health insurance, vacation time.

Most of us are wandering around, looking at our lives and asking ourselves, "Is this is? Are we adults now?"

There is no, "What do you want to be?" There is only, "What are you doing now?"

And so I'm not going to ask my kids. I'm not going to imply that there's an end result- that there's a final destination at which you have arrived, when you have grown up and are what you thought you wanted to be.

I'm going to ask my kids what they like. What they're interested in.

I'm not going to tell them that it matters what they get their degrees in. I'm going to tell them that opportunity is what you make of it, that your life is defined by your actions, and that whatever you're prepared for will be another door that can open for you.

I'm going to encourage them to study everything. Science, math, humanities, fine arts, business, languages. I'm going to encourage them to be Renaissance women, because there is no assurance that any jobs I know today, any careers, will still exist.

By the time they're ready for college, there will no doubt be online-only schools with as much academic prestige as the Big Ten.

By the time they're ready to take their first job, there will no doubt be position titles like "Interstate OS interface manager," or "Insulin chip system administrator."

I have no idea what the length of those careers will be. I have no idea how lucrative they'll be, how much stability they'll have.

I have no idea if when my kids are my age, it makes any sense for them to start families. Or if, like me, they will chose to have children when they're younger, to gamble on insecurity.

But I do know that this question, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" didn't do me any favors. It didn't do any favors for my friends who became sommeliers, who started up cooking magazines, or who bake cakes from rented kitchen-shares.

This is a new economy, filled with temporary jobs and service jobs and thirty year olds who play video games instead board games with their friends.

"What do you want to be?"

We want to be happy. We want to be secure. We want to be confident that there will be food on our tables and a roof over our heads and service on our phones.

Everything else needs a new set of questions.


  1. I was a Gen Xer - I got out of school and got a job right away. It wasn't my dream job, but it paid - my only real requirement. Now I look at my kids and think about that lesson. Do you go to school to get a job that you love or go to school to get a paid job. Lots of time these do not go hand in hand. We talk about what they want to do a lot - I have to with my son. But as for pushing them? No, we give them opportunities to think about what they love and how to find a job that pays doing what they love. Cause when you love your job, it makes it a hell of a lot better getting up every day to go to it.

  2. I too am a Gen Xer, and I have to say it was not as rosy as it may sound. I had a lot of friends who had advanced degrees and had a hard time finding work. Not to mention the droves of friends that we have that have done all the "right" things only to find not only their jobs, but their whole industries in ruin. I think many reinvent themselves out of pure need. My parents were always preaching security, but I think we now all know that you are not going to find security with one company. I think the one time when you can try on different hats is when you are in school. I want my kids to find their strengths and what they love and then think about how to turn that into a living. I want to expose them to as many opportunities and people as I can so that their world is wide enough to think outside of the box. My dream for my kids is that they feel empowered to take anything that might come their way and rise above it. Thanks for a very thought provoking post!!!

  3. I agree with you that we need to give our children the skill of being versatile and one thing, your generation and mine (the one seemingly lost between x and y) didn't seem to get was the idea of persistence. We were told "good job" and "you're so smart" so often that when we didn't get that encouragement, we just gave up. Our children are going to need to fight and persist for any job when they grow up and they'll need, like you said, the ability to wear a variety of hats. I think the babies born since 2009 have been on the decline. That should help our kids with the job market a little, I hope!

  4. I hope my kids end up doing something they love--whatever that ends up being.

  5. My favorite line is "I'm going to ask my kids what they like. What they're interested in." Amen, Sister! When I was growing up it was 'be a lawyer or a doctor'. Period. God bless my parents... they only thought they were doing right by me, but it actually just left me confused and self conscious. I, like other Gen Xers, worked 2 careers before becoming a mommy at age 35. I'm now 38 and have a 1 and 3 year old and started my 3rd 'career' being their Mama. And I know I'll start up a 4th career once the time is right. I have to say, despite the awful our world dishes out, I still feel blessed to live this beautiful life full of bountiful choices.



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