Children are asked this question even before the start of kindergarten. They speak longingly and sincerely of becoming doctors, teachers, astronauts, ballerinas, rock stars, professional athletes and jet pilots. But when wide-eyed children face the harsh reality of ballooning education costs combined with adult life in the workforce, do any of them stick with their dreams? Or is the whole idea of a "dream job" simply a fluid, ever-changing concept?
Kenexa, the parent company of Salary.com, is hosting its annual Kenexa World Conference from October 11-12. This year's theme is The Conference of Grown-Up Dreams, so Salary.com surveyed more than 1,100 people and asked them about their dream jobs, their current jobs and their passions. We wanted to know if they're doing what they always dreamed of, if those dreams morphed into something else entirely, whether or not they're passionate about their careers and what employers can do to help.
When it comes to turning childhood dream jobs into a reality, the numbers are grim at first glance. Only 16 percent of those surveyed are currently living out the dreams they conjured up when they were younger. Becoming a doctor involves a decade or so of expensive higher education, you have to log thousands upon thousands of hours to become a NASA astronaut and it takes years of training to become a fighter pilot. It's hard enough to attain these goals if that's your sole purpose in life, but if you're also trying to start and provide for a family, then a steady 9 to 5 often becomes indispensable.
Take the one man we surveyed who dreamed of being Jacques Cousteau when he grew up. He said he gave up his dream of oceanic exploration when he married, had kids and took a job as a manufacturing manager.
"I would've needed a masters or PhD to continue in that direction," he said. "And I didn't think family life would fit well with being away from home on an ocean somewhere for long periods of time."
But even though childhood dream jobs are often put on the back burner, they never really fade away. Sixty percent of respondents say they wish they could still fulfill their dreams. Furthermore, 70 percent of those surveyed said their dream job changed once they became an adult.
One woman, who works as an interior designer, wanted to be an actress when she grew up. But years later with the acting bug behind her, she said her dream job became working with architects to design environmentally-friendly buildings. Although she never actually fulfilled her acting dream, she feels she found a way to merge it with her grown-up self.
"I was always a builder and inventor, and I was also dramatic and created stories," she said. "In a way, I am still living my dream by creating."
Although the vast majority of those surveyed said they didn't end up following their dreams, there is a silver lining. Nearly 60 percent of respondents say they are passionate about their current careers, despite the fact it's not where they originally envisioned themselves.
One man, who wanted to be a pediatrician but now finds himself working in regulatory affairs, said "My idea of a dream job became about passion, level of stress and time for family and friends. As well as being able to provide a comfortable living for myself."
But that passion---as well as the likelihood of snagging a dream job---seems to decrease with age.
Twenty-two percent of people age 18-25 are working a dream job. That number drops to 14 percent for those age 26-35, and less than 12 percent for people age 36-45. Although there's a rebound for those nearing retirement who might be starting second careers, the drop-off prior to that is clearly evident. Also, when questioned about career passion, 71 percent of younger workers said they are currently working a job that genuinely excites them. But for people between the ages of 46-55, that number drops to 53 percent.
"I got married and had a family and had to put food on the table," said a Human Resources specialist who originally wanted to be a doctor. "But now it's too late and too expensive to go back to school. Guess I ran out of time."
While it's impossible for everyone to have their dreams fulfilled, it's very possible for companies to take note of these passions and partner with employees in mutually beneficial ventures.
Most employers realize passionate workers are happier, productive, more engaged and less likely to look elsewhere for employment opportunities. In fact, 87 percent of those surveyed said it is either very important or somewhat important to work for a company that helps them achieve their hopes and dreams. But only 19 percent of respondents said their employers do a good job of fostering employees' passions.
When asked what companies can do to better promote these passions, the most common answers were "communicate with employees," "get to know your employees" and "supply paid time off to let people pursue their dreams." Others took it even further.
"There are always options for honoring passion. Have perks/rewards that include tickets to classes/performances of individual interest (a true 'thank you, I see YOU!'), and have theme parties that include the interest of the majority," said one woman.
Another woman, who works as a library assistant, said "I think the promotion of passions and dreams starts with the family and education system. Employers should support both to this end. Too often, the 'you can be anything you want to be' mantra we sell our children turns into a 'yeah but there's no money in it' or 'how will you make a living doing that?' or 'I'm not spending all that money for college just so you can do that' ball and chain. Even in the corporate world the culture can be one where co-workers and bosses tell employees they already have the best job they can get. Following one's dream, especially if that dream job is not deemed important enough to society to warrant a living wage, is discouraged. Dreams and passions are not taken seriously. It's all about the money. So, how can employers promote dreams and passions? By re-prioritizing the meaning and value of profit and earnings reports. Include the value of the employees to the success of the company, not just the monetary figures. Treat employees as the assets they are, not liabilities or expenses."