“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Children are accustomed to hearing that question. And they usually say things like pilot, tall, or teacher – but some kids get creative. As children grow into adults, though, they may realize their dreams from when they were 5 years old aren’t practical. However, youthful aspirations can stick around into adulthood.
To learn more about the evolution of dream jobs throughout childhood and adulthood, we surveyed over 1,000 people about their past and current aspirations. What did people want to be when they were children? What about now as adults? And why do some abandon their childhood dreams? Read on as we explore how dream jobs change over time.
Then vs. Now
A career in the arts and entertainment field was the most popular among survey participants – as adults and when they were children. Twenty-eight percent of Gen Zers desired a career in arts and entertainment when they were young, and 24% still deemed it a dream job.
Science was a popular field people aspired to enter as children, but technology and entrepreneurship replaced it once people reached adulthood. Being a scientist isn’t all goggles and explosions, though – you have to pass all those hard math and sciences first.
Nineteen percent of millennials and Gen Zers favored technology, but 17% of Gen Xers and 12% baby boomers dreamed of becoming entrepreneurs as adults. According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there are 30.2 million small businesses, and owners are 50.3 years old, on average, so the dream may not be that far from reality for older generations.
Dreaming of a Career in …
Now that we know which fields were most dreamed about, let’s get more specific: Did people want to be dancers or musicians? Veterinarians or programmers?
One in 10 millennials wanted to be athletes when they were younger, but a sports career didn’t make the list once they reached adulthood. Why? Well, an alarming 70% of kids dropped out of the game in their early teens, and stress was the No. 1 reason: Outside pressure, often from family, made them feel like they weren’t good enough. So, as adults, millennials desired to own a business (5%) or become an artist (4%) instead.
The No. 1 childhood dream job among baby boomers was archaeology. However, as adults, 9% wanted to become business owners. Six percent of Gen X adults also wanted to own a business or become an entrepreneur, but as children, they most aspired to be an athlete.
Give Up or Push Forward
A 12-year-old may think they want to write the next Harry Potter-adjacent bestseller, but they may fail to understand that J.K. Rowling received 12 rejections. So, upon reaching adulthood and receiving their fourth decline, they give up and dismiss their passion.
The top three reasons people in our study stopped pursuing their dream jobs were: financial impracticality, not a skill-based fit, and not a personality-based fit. J.K. Rowling also didn’t have the bank account to support a dozen no’s, but she had a couple of safety nets: Britain’s public benefits system and a minister who allowed her to bring her daughter to work.
More than half of those who desired an athletic career gave up on their dream because it wasn’t a skill-based fit. Of those with technological aspirations, 35% said they forwent their dreams because they found stability elsewhere. And 30% of people who hung up their arts and entertainment dreams did so because they deemed a career in the field financially impractical. However, depending on the position, this may not be the case for everyone: Arts and entertainment jobs can pay upward of $91,000.
Of the generations surveyed, baby boomers and Gen Xers were more likely to close the door on a dream job due to finances. Lack of skill stopped 1 in 4 millennials from chasing a goal. Of Gen Zers who gave up on a dream, 16% said they realized it wasn’t a personality fit.
Incentives Over Time
Finding the right motivators to help us strive for success and happiness might be what it takes to fulfill our dreams.
Respondents were most motivated as children by the chance to do something creative (40%), followed by wanting to help others (37%). However, once participants reached adulthood, money (42%) was the No. 1 incentive, and creativity fell to No. 3 – right after flexible hours.
As adults, the opportunity to help others was the top motivator for Gen Zers, millennials, and baby boomers, but Gen Xers were most interested in being their own boss. Gen Zers equally desired the chance to be their own boss, flexible hours, and adventure.
The youngest generation was unique in its desire to fulfill dreams working for a large company: 41% expressed an interest in working for a company with over 1,000 employees. Conversely, more than half of baby boomers and 45% of Gen Xers desired to be part of a small organization (100 employees or fewer). Millennials would be satisfied with a midsize company.
Holding Onto Our Dreams
As our study revealed, only around 29% of people stuck with their childhood dreams. However, some jobs stood the test of time more successfully than others. For those who aspired to have a job in technology, around 41% felt it was still possible to accomplish. In fact, getting that dream job at Google or another tech company might not be as difficult to achieve as thought. A million technology jobs needed filling in 2019, and minimal education was required for those positions.
Interestingly enough, Gen Zers felt the most capable and optimistic about going after their dream jobs. Around 1 in 3 Gen Zers felt getting the job of their dreams was within reach, and 29% were pursuing it. But even though we may often believe the grass is greener on the other side, less than half of respondents felt their dream job would make them happier than their current job.
A team of researchers at Stanford University found that if you follow your passion, you might be less likely to achieve success. But if you remain open to other areas of interest or hone in on other strengths, you may succeed after all.
According to our findings, the No. 1 reason people hit snooze on their dreams was because of financial impracticality. Maybe adopt Mark Cuban’s advice: Hold onto your goals, but find out what else you’re good at.
We don’t recommend sleeping on your dreams, but when you do go down for a nice snooze, we want you to be comfortable. Visit TheSleepJudge.com, where we share insight on the best mattresses and sleep products around. We read the online reviews and test mattresses for durability, load deflection, heat transfer, and other factors, so all you have to worry about is following your dreams.
Methodology and Limitations
We surveyed 1,002 people of varying generations on their childhood dream jobs to see how values toward what we covet as a job and its perks change over time. Around 41% of respondents were millennials, 37% were Gen Xers, 11% were baby boomers, and 11% were Gen Zers. Ages ranged from 18 to 73, with a mean age of 38 and a standard deviation of 11 years.
Respondents chose from a wide range of specific job titles, and those titles were grouped into more general job categories for sample size purposes. Some job categories were not shown due to a small sample size.
Survey projects have limitations, such as telescoping, exaggeration, and selective memory. We did not weight our data or statistically test our hypothesis.
Fair Use Statement
Aspirations are precious, so please share what you’ve learned about dream jobs. We encourage you to share our project with other visionaries for noncommercial use. All we ask is that you link back to this page and cite the author of the study – we want the dreamers in your life to have access to the complete study.