A Little Historical Perspective on Career Choice

29Jan12

One question we all remember being asked while we were growing up is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We’ve all heard it, and most of us have asked it. Our interests change over time as we grow up — depending partly (perhaps mostly) on the jobs we know about. What we don’t realize is how relatively new this question is.

A child growing up in ancient Athens, for example, would never have had to answer this question. Chances were good that he or she would have been a slave, so would have had no choice. Even if free, a boy would have been expected to learn at his father’s knee, and follow his father’s line of work; girls would have headed into marriage and domestic life.

Though I love A Knight’s Tale (for its humor, romance, action, and analysis of the comparative roles of sport in medieval and modern society), a medieval thatcher would not have dreamed of becoming a knight. He wouldn’t have been able to imagine changing his station (or stars) like that. He might have been able to take up an apprenticeship in a guild other than his father’s, but those options would have still been limited. In a way, the nobility’s options were even more narrow: oldest sons prepared to managed the family’s main estate (and to have a marriage arrange to cement an alliance), while younger sons would be prepared for the clergy or to inherit (and manage) lesser family estates.

In fact, before the second agricultural revolution (and the industrial revolution), the majority of people made their living on farms, and didn’t have much choice about ti. It was work they were raised doing, work they knew, work they knew how to do, and work that was in demand. There wasn’t much need to ask an eighteenth century farm boy what he wanted to be when he grew up — with very rare exception, he was going to be a farmer.

Even at the start of the industrial revolution, most people had no opportunity to find a career of their choice. Those moving from the farms to the cities (whether by choice or by force) did not find their way into the factories because they wanted to run a loom for ten or twelve hours a day, but because that’s what would feed, clothe, and house themselves  and their families.

The question of what we want to be when we grow up only becomes important when there is a question. As we have moved from the country to the city, and work has become more specialized, our options have expanded — even more so for the college-educated (a group which as itself expanded from 5% to 28% of the population since World War II).

Barry Schwartz has argued that having too many options leads us to be more dissatisfied with whatever we ultimately choose. I can’t see how that wouldn’t apply to career choice as well. Perhaps people were more likely to be satisfied with their careers when there were fewer options. Perhaps, also, people did not define themselves by their work, but saw that work was what they did to sustain the rest of their lives. It didn’t have to be fulfilling in itself. With as many options as there are these days, it is worth striving toward something that can provide fulfillment… but if we miss that goal we should remember that our work is not who we are.

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