You breathe a sigh of silent relief. The dinner party your parents are hosting seems to be going well. The relatives haven’t descended into a shouting match over their questionable political views or whether the chicken is edible. You take another sip of water before their attention turns on you when they suddenly need a topic of conversation that’s not your uncle justifying his refusal for the vaccine. They ask the question you’ve been expecting and dreading the whole night: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”
Every year, those ten syllables are most likely posed to thousands of Australian children. It seems relatively innocent and even polite to ask young people their future aspirations, except those ten words aren’t asking for their dream. Instead, it’s an intrusive probe which degrades their value and potential. Asking young people those ten words during a period in their life where they are struggling to forge an individual identity disregards their unique potential in favour of their promised labour.
It’s easy to understand the damage when considering whether it would be socially acceptable to answer that question without listing a formal occupation.
If people were to ask a teenager, they wouldn’t answer with, “a caring person” or, “someone who does the right thing no matter what.” Instead, the answer which is expected is a profession that suits their skills developed during school which they go off to either study or work straight after school. It’s concerning to notice that this is the default answer, especially when this education to employment pipeline doesn’t cater to anyone’s wellbeing or happiness, but rather to late-stage capitalism which demands labour to foremostly turn a profit for others. Instilling a work-centric attitude upon people is a vicious byproduct of capitalism. Labour empowers modern capitalism at the expense of people – especially young people and people of colour. This notion of the world sustains an ideology that actively harms us and our planet while we perpetuate its success by equating our own self-worth with its survival by constantly demanding and emphasising employment as social status.
The “What do you want to be?” question also frames adolescence as an inferior state: something which exists only to be surpassed by adulthood, where adulthood equals a full-time and productive job. Why are we treating the lives of children and teenagers as nothing but the preparation stages for employment? If we’re doing that, we might as well teach kids how to drive a forklift or a truck instead of celebrating their youth.
In today’s hyper-competitive world, all we’ve ever known is that your job is how others see you and evaluate your self-worth. All of this starts and continues with a ten-word question that fuels capitalism’s authority over us. We should aim to ask young people a different question, one that doesn’t demand nine-to-five employment or their labour, but instead asks them, “What kind of person do you want to be?” After all, it’s still ten syllables, and instead of valuing careers for the future, it values people who care and love for each other and the world we share.
Originally published in Woroni Vol. 72 Issue 22 ‘To Be Confirmed’
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