JI AureconEver since our drawings of stick figures were hung up on the fridge at home, we’ve been telling the world what we want to be when we grow up. Even our dress-up toys (the little plastic stethoscope for a birthday present; fireman’s hat; the police badge) subtly beg the question: “What will you be when you grow up?” Yet, considering that many children at primary school today will end up in jobs that don’t even exist yet, the idea of ‘what I want to be when I grow up’ is more confusing than ever before.

Let’s face it ‒ most 15-year-olds don’t have a five-year plan. Even Bill Gates didn’t aim for ‘Harvard dropout’ on his résumé. The pressure of establishing a career comes all too early and demands our asking, is it even a good question at all? Given that we are multifaceted and protean in design, should we even aspire to forging one career path?

Jaime Casap, the Chief Education Evangelist at Google, says: “Don’t ask kids what they want to be when they grow up but what problems do they want to solve. This changes the conversation from who do I want to work for, to what do I need to learn to be able to do that.”

We need to flip the age-old conversation on its head and speak to character more than career. The Herculean ‘job title’ is dying. It’s now about the type of person we want to bring into our workplaces. The age of the time-honoured and tendered executives is behind us. Today’s organisational cultures are looking for that certain ‘spark’ as much as they are skill. The ones who take the future may just be those foolish enough to believe they can be a dentist and a dancer in a day.

Moving sideways

Gone are the days of ‘for better or for worse’ between employee and employer. Today, one in four workers has been with their current employer for less than a year, and one in two for less than five years. And going forward, a Jobvite study has found that 42% of millennials expect to change jobs at least every 1-3 years. The corporate ladder has lost its lacquer; people are pursuing a windier path that is project-based and not locale or company-based.

Today people are on the move, choosing to freelance, work part-time, consult, or come in as a third party. Flexibility and agility are kingpin attributes in a corporate world that has to move at lightning pace; knowledge needs to span specialties and even industries.

The millennial workforce has an insatiable appetite to learn and try new things ‒ even if they fail while doing it. With purpose motivating stronger than paycheck, the prospect of employer monogamy can be the great enemy, if the atmosphere of opportunity is stale. We have to make sure our organisations are offering multiple pathways to keep growing our people. ‘Up’ is not the only direction anymore. Millennials are looking to go sideways ‒ and even down ‒ if it will benefit their professional and personal portfolio.

It’s not about the job, it’s about the work

Simon Sinek believes that somewhere between Gen X and today, the tectonic plates of corporate reality have shifted. Previously the benchmark was job loyalty, stability, financial security. The narrative is now “How do I make an impact?” and even “How do I save the planet?”

The previous generations of 20 years didn’t have this view. But then, inter-generational affluence has seen each generation progressively give their kids better. Through each generation, kids get better educated, go on better holidays, and have better experiences.

Access to better education and having generally better amenities in life means that they want for less, but also that this ‘better life’ becomes the new norm for them. When they turn their mind upwards as to ‘what they want to do’, their starting point is higher and hence their aspiration generally goes higher. 20 years ago, life was about achieving a good stable pay check, but now it’s about bigger things like saving the whales or the planet.

What will the new norm in another 20 years be as societal inter-generational affluence continues to grow and each generation of kids experiences a better quality of life? Starting from an even higher benchmark, what will the future generations aspire toward – and how will employers start to build that into their work structures and employment offers?

The questions we should be asking

The digital evolution is creating some deep rabbit holes of opportunities. If we’re honest, we don’t know where we’ll come out on the other side. No longer can we afford to make it just about the job; we need to be looking for people who know how to stay one step ahead of whatever that job may be.

When hiring, we need to be asking questions like: What motivates you? What are your passions? What legacy are you going after, both personally and professionally? What would you be proud to tell your parents or your kids about? Finding the right problem is the meat and potatoes of innovation, and we need to cultivate a culture that attracts the divergent thinkers. The companies that will run ahead are those who know how to apply today’s skills while drawing out tomorrow’s skills not yet imagined.

Casap reminds us to shoot higher as we reinvent our organisations. The right question is ‘how do we want to change the world?’ rather than ‘what do you want to do for a living?’ Suddenly, “the conversation changes from ‘which rung on the ladder do I want to reach’, to ‘should I even climb a ladder when a combination of escalator, water slide and a ramp might get the outcomes that matter to me?’” Our work can be far more generative if we become more authentic through the process.

Maybe it’s time to re-pose the question to our 6-year-old selves, who (not what) do I want to be in the future? It’s never too late to not grow up.

Sharrock Trevor(The kids featured in this video are Aurecon employees’ kids with incredible imaginations and a determination to explore the wonders of the world where there are no limits and anything is possible. They epitomise the courage to ‘Just Imagine’.)

By Trevor Sharrock, Technical Director at Aurecon, Rail Track & Civil Team Leader