What seventh grade students want to be when they grow up, an analysis

A few years ago, I listed some of the careers seventh grade students chose for themselves. But my friend the seventh grade teacher pointed out to me that the list hides the correlation between the jobs and the students.

The lower-performing students chose the high-glamour jobs: Professional athlete, model, rock star, actor. Some of these students may be exhibiting boundless optimism; others may simply not have thought through the question very much and just picked the first thing that popped into their head. By comparison, the higher-performing students tended toward low-glamour but highly-skilled jobs: Contract attorney, civil engineer, brain surgeon, traffic planner.

It's interesting that both groups are setting themselves up for disappointment in different ways. The big dreamers are likely to be disappointed when they find that becoming an actor involves lots of waiting tables and tiny roles trying to get your big break, or that becoming a professional athlete means you're competing against thousands of other hopefuls for only a few dozen openings. On the other hand, the harsh realists may be selling themselves short, missing out on a chance to exercise their creativity.

Or maybe it's just too soon for twelve-year-olds to be worrying about this sort of thing. Let them have their dreams for a few years longer.

Comments (32)
  1. msuiche says:

    This point of view is very interesting — I guess most of people stop dreaming and hoping when they become adults. I’ve recently read an article which said "[French] people are happier at the age of 65 than 40" .. Funny too :)

  2. ME says:

    I think this can be seen from an evolutionary psychology perspective: if someone is low-performing, they will naturally want to play the lottery, hoping for their big break. If the best income you can hope for is 50k, you’re better off waiting tables and hoping to become an actor. But if you’re expecting to make 150k, then waiting tables would dramatically reduce your lifetime earnings. You’re better off going with the guaranteed 150k than hoping to make it <i>really</i> big. I read that somewhere (perhaps in a Gladwell article?).

  3. Former 7th Grader says:

    I’m very creative and enjoy art, but I also find math and physics very easy because it’s common-sense. I took the latter bet. You can always make decent money as an engineer, as an artist you’re gambling.

  4. Alexandre Grigoriev says:

    @Former 7th Grader:

    And in any case, you don’t have to give up arts, even if your day job is an engineer.

  5. Mitch says:

    Hmm… I’m 41 and I still want to be a rock star when I grow up.  What does that say about me?

  6. dave says:

    I don’t have any idea what I wanted to be at that age.  It’s quite possible that I didn’t have any "real career" dreams.

    It’s not original to me, but this paraphrase-of-a-quote sums it up quite nicely:  "I just kind of imagined playing with Lego for my entire life.  Since I’m now a computer programmer, I guess you could say that that’s what happened."

  7. John says:

    Nobody wants to be a traffic planner, especially not a 12 year old kid.  I think you made that up.

  8. Greg D says:


    It says that you’d be a good drinking buddy.  :D

  9. John says:

    Asking such a question also enforces the idea that they will work the same jobs that their parents did, with the same social structures, instead of creating their own opportunities.  

    A different question is:  When you grow up, what will you change about the world?  That makes a different set of assumptions, but assumptions I prefer.

  10. Joy says:

    John, he’s not kidding.  In my decade of teaching I’ve heard more than one kid talk about wanting to be a traffic planner.  Some kids see a problem, and they are fascinated by the idea of fixing it.

  11. Gabe says:

    OK, traffic planner I can see, but contract attorney?

  12. Grant says:

    Why not a contract attorney?

    Here’s my theory.  A majority of the high performers come from upper-middle class backgrounds.  Their parents keep an eye on the homework and care about good grades and dammit, you ARE going to college.  But the kids are younger.  So they probably still just want to do what daddy or mommy does.  Hence the interest in traffic planning or contract law.

    The lower performers are generally not from upper-middle class backgrounds.  Since daddy works (for example) assembling widgets in a factory, they know they don’t want to follow in daddy’s/mommy’s footsteps.  So they’re more imaginative.

  13. Ellis Dashell says:

    Ask the same child the same question six months later, or even six weeks, and you should get a different answer, if the school is achieving the goal "broadening horizons".

    Quantum mechanics tells us that the answers will be all over the map to fill every possible quantum position.  Which position an individual claims to want, and which they end up filling is largely a matter of chance, due to the influences of their peers and society at large.

  14. John C. Kirk says:

    I wonder how much of this involves people playing to their (perceived) strengths? E.g. "I’m bad at maths, but good at football, so I’ll be a footballer" vs "I’m bad at sports, but good at maths, so I’ll be an accountant".

  15. Neil (SM) says:

    Heh. I actually actively pursued the rock star/waiting tables dream for several years before I got the degree and the software job.

  16. Zero says:

    When I was in first grade I wanted to be an "inventor".

    When I was in fifth grade I knew I would be using computers heavily wherever I went.

    Now that I’m in grad school I want to do some real research in computer science.

    I think I set my sights properly.

  17. MrMister says:

    Quantum mechanics tells us that…

      No – it doesn’t.

  18. Bob says:

    I thought that "brain surgeon" was up there with "rocket scientist".  :)

    Though I do love ads for career education.

    "Don’t be stuck in an office, go get training to work on a farm" is always followed soon after with "I always wanted to work in an office, so go to this school to learn office admin skills".

    No matter what you do, you’ll spend your entire life with someone telling you that you’re wrong.

  19. Deneb says:

    In 7th grade I discovered I wanted to be a computer programmer… And now I am…

    Please shoot me, shoot me now!

  20. Cheong says:

    Deneb: Same here.

    My study focus shifted heavily towards computer programming/system internals around F.1. Before that I dreamt to be a teacher. :P

  21. Peter says:

    The low performers are the ones with dreams; the high performers are the ones with *plans*.  No surprise there.  You’ll find the same correlation across all ages and walks of life.

  22. MatsG says:

    When I was a kid, I always wanted to be an astronaut. I knew everything there was to know about the planets, stars and moons, and I had tons of LEGO with spaceships and stuff. Yay!

    In retrospect, that would have been an amazingly poor career choice, since I very easily get motion sickness and have vowed never to set foot on a boat again. (Or a two-seat airplane. Nasty story.)

    Luckily enough, in fifth grade, my dad started bringing me to his office every Tuesday evening, so I could play with their computers. I’ve never left the keyboard since.

  23. When I was asked that question at school I was eight. I had no idea what I wanted to be so I just chose the "best job" – being an astronaut.

    Somehow this question never came back but at the age of twelve I already discovered my passion for programming and knew who I would become. Did I sell myself short in life? :)

  24. James says:

    I was quite traditional when I was young….I wanted to be a pilot.

    However, my parents bought me a clunky CP/M machine when I was twelve, and that was that.

    Initially I wanted to be a games programmer, but started out in tech support/web/etc.

    Getting close though, now doing programming on CAD and PLM systems, which is where I will probably stay for the foreseeably future.

    Games programming doesn’t pay as well :)

  25. laonianren says:

    From the age of about eight I always told people I wanted to be a dustman (aka refuse collector) because I disliked the question and enjoyed the discomfiture I caused.

  26. dave says:

    I wanted to be an astronaut early on.

    Then came the Challenger explosion, after which my parents tell me I stopped wanting to be an astronaut, literally overnight.

    Funny how those things affect a six-year-old.

  27. Aaron G says:

    Grant: That’s a really great theory and all, but in reality there’s very little correlation between academic performance and economic background, especially in primary/secondary education and especially in public schools.

    Even in university, the rich kids are often the worst performers because students with lower incomes have to depend on scholarships and bursaries and work hard to keep them, whereas rich kids often have very little motivation and are only there because they were essentially forced to go.

    So throw that theory out the window, because this is just another case of the low-skilled being blissfully unaware of their lack of talent.  The evolutionary psychology angle is interesting though, might explain why Hollywood has the collective IQ of an eggplant.

  28. Caliban Darklock says:

    When I was very young, I wanted to be a research scientist. This eventually turned into a desire to work in genetics. Then I went to college, where I found science to be Hard Work, and discovered that it also didn’t pay so well.

    In the midst of a subsequent aspiration to become a pastry chef, my restaurant manager watched with fascination as I resolved his computer problems… before asking what in God’s name I was doing trying to be a pastry chef.

    After all, he explained, I was NEVER going to be a great pastry chef – no matter how long and hard I worked – but it looked to him like I had a decent shot at being a great computer programmer.

    The idea had honestly never occurred to me. I don’t think I have much of a shot at being great, really… but just being competent pays pretty well.

  29. George Jansen says:

    I don’t really remember what I wanted to be in 7th Grade, though that was about the point that I found that my eyesight was no longer 20/20, ergo that I wouldn’t be flying a plane. I am pretty sure that I had no aspirations to be a computer programmer, on the grounds that I wouldn’t have heard of that vocation. I probably didn’t see a computer till sometime in high school.

  30. Jimmy says:

    So the analysis is that the harsh realists wind up wanting to be brain surgeons?

  31. Ray Trent says:

    I think it’s simpler than all that… in truth all we have to assume is that low-performing people don’t understand the concept of "expected value" and/or have a poor ability to judge probability.

    There’s so much evidence for this theory that it seems safe to apply it to this particular phenomenon.

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