Skip to main content


Why You Do Not Know What You Will Be When You Grow Older: Rethinking Careers

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ This is probably one of the most common questions asked to children. The expectation is to hear an answer like fireman or doctor – a profession with a clearly defined career path. Apart from the fact that this question requires children to define themselves in terms of work, how relevant is it still in the year 2020?

Technology is rapidly changing the world of work, and automation is not going to stop. In addition, COVID-19 has been a wake-up call for many people. The pandemic has raised unsettling questions about ‘where, how and why we work’, with many employees second-guessing their career choices.

Traditionally, careers were described in terms of a ladder: one starts on a low step and climbs up over the years. The changing world of work is forcing us to rethink this basic conception of a career. The many twists and turns that come with modern careers require more flexible career planning, or they demand us to redirect our focus from building a career to developing ourselves.

Instead of thinking about our careers in terms of clearly defined job titles, we can take control by focusing on our own personal development. Investing in and building on ourselves can reduce a number of uncertainties associated with traditional careers that can be impacted by company politics, the state of automation or even a pandemic.

The key is to focus on our own capabilities, and to continue to develop those through lifelong learning, upskilling and reskilling. This can, for example, involve the following steps: The first one can be to reflect on your personal background. What makes you unique? Examine your strengths and identify how you can leverage them against new workplace developments. In the second step, use your resources to find training opportunities. A positive effect of new technologies is that they allow for free self-education at home through the Khan Academy, Microsoft Learn, Coursera, and TED talks, among many other knowledge hubs. In the third step, stay informed in your field by following industry trends. This can be done by following blogs, subscribing to newsletters or building your network both on- and offline. The key is to keep up to date with what is happening in your field.

In a prominent episode of Last Week Tonight, host John Oliver suggested that the career of the future is a “series of non-routine tasks that require social intelligence, complex critical thinking and creative problem solving.” How adequate is it then to ask our children what they want to become when they grow up? Instead, we should ask what problems they wish to solve, and to equip them with the “human” skills to pursue ‘twenty-first century career goals’, such as creativity, communication and critical thinking.

Chances are that many of us, especially younger generations, can no longer know what they will be and how their careers will look like when they grow older. However, by rethinking the meaning of career, and by focusing on individual development instead, we can overcome uncertainties associated with our careers and instead find security within us and our capabilities.

About the Author

Dr Lara C. Roll is a Marie Curie Fellow at KU Leuven (Belgium) and an Extraordinary Researcher at North-West University (South Africa). She was an Academic Visitor at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in January - March 2019.

Opinions of the blogger is their own and not endorsed by the Institute

Comments Welcome: We welcome your comments on this or any of the Institute's blog posts. Please feel free to email comments to be posted on your behalf to or use the Disqus facility linked below.