Page last updated at 11:37 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

When I grow up I'll be a...

Children dressed up as  a builder, nurse, fireman etc

By Sue Mitchell

Do you remember what you wanted to be when you grew up - and have you achieved it? A study run over the past 50 years has tested what helps childhood aspirations become reality.

In 1969 when they were 11 years old, 14,000 British children were asked to write 30-minute essays predicting what they might become in the future.

My husband would have just won £200 so we decided to go to the Moon for our holiday while we had not got any children

I may get married and I have to cook his meals before he comes or he will start to moan

Two of the essays

As well as evidence of individual ambition, the essays offered snapshots of how the children imagined life would be when they reached 25. Many mentioned future holidays on the Moon - not surprising, as the essays were written in the same month as the first lunar landing in July 1969.

Most foresaw marriage on the horizon. No-one mentioned divorce, and the concept of co-habitation seemed almost inconceivable. As many boys as girls wrote about either getting married or having children.

"You have the girls at 11 writing not just about doing housework, but having very clear career aspirations, albeit perhaps to be a teacher or a hairdresser, but very much thinking about themselves in the world of work," says Professor Jane Elliott of the Centre for Longitudinal Studies, part of the Institute for Education which is carrying out the lifetime survey.

When I Grow Up is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesdays from 16 February at 0930 GMT
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"There is definitely an observable link between what people are aspiring to do when they are 11 years old and what they end up doing when they are older."

Of those with professional aspirations at age 11 - with dreams of being a vet, a lawyer, an architect - more than half did indeed end up entering professional occupations, even if their eventual career wasn't quite the one they had had in mind.


At 11, Bruce wrote about his 25-year-old self: "I work for a Newspaper as a journalist. I am quite a successful journalist and earn quite a lot of money. I wish to be an author when I am older and write several books… I hope to be quite wealthy later in life when my books are published."

Bruce and his ship's captain father
Bruce and his father

That dream has not come to pass, but as an interim manager for a number of IT projects, he is successful and has houses in both the UK and United States.

His father was captain on a cruise ship and would be away from home for months at a time. In his absence, Bruce's mother ran the house. He recalls how strict she was.

"I remember we had to call her the major and when my Dad was home she would say to him, 'You're the captain of the ship but I'm the major at home'.

"She use to say to me 'You can do absolutely anything, Bruce.' She had great faith in my abilities and at the time I wrote the essay, I think people saw me as being something of a clever dick. I knew I was fairly bright, as I was in the upper stream and had just passed the 11 Plus. I had this unshakeable belief in my abilities."

Research using data from the thousands of individuals in the 1958 Birth Cohort Study, by Professor Ingrid Schoon, confirms that parental aspirations and involvement with their children's education has a significant impact on academic attainment. This is true even once socio-economic disadvantage has been taken into account.


Kim with her Mum, Dad, two brothers and younger sister
Kim, right, with her parents and younger siblings

At 11, Kim imagined a life revolving around travel - working with the animals in Africa, and studying the aardvark and the warthog. Her essay ends ambitiously: "I plan to see the whole world before I die and maybe to see the Moon beneath my feet."

Her life has followed that pattern - she left school at 18 and went to Greece, Italy and other parts of Europe. Falling in love with an Australian, they married and travelled the world together. After living for seven years in Australia, the couple returned to the UK and they now have three children.

Kim still dreams of travel. "My husband is so stressed at work that all he can think of is getting a recliner and Sky sport. All I can think of is getting into a camper van and taking off. I'd quite like to throw all my cards up in the air. I've had long enough of working 9-5."

She still remembers writing her essay.

Kim and Peggy
Kim and her mother, Peggy

"I remember being that age and having those very strong feelings about wanting to travel. It wasn't so much the cities - it was the wild remote places I wanted to see. I couldn't wait. I had such itchy feet - and I still have itchy feet unfortunately."

While the 1958 Birth Cohort Study includes a detailed housing history for all its respondents, foreign travel is not included. But of the 18,558 members born in one week in 1958, 7% - 1,340 people - have emigrated overseas and are no longer part of the study.


On donkey aged about six, and in 2005
Margaret as a child, and as a cop

At 11, Margaret was strongly influenced by her mother, who acted as a "ministering angel" to the small community in which they lived. Her mother would make food for the local old folk, tend to the sick and even lay out those who died. Margaret accompanied her, and as a child wanted to be a nurse.

She wrote: "I am working at the Royal hospital. I am only part time, and I have a family. Every day I meet new people and I like this very much. I am leading a good life and it is the best because you go out in the morning happy and come in happy."

And so she was - for a while. Margaret started work at the local psychiatric hospital, but some of the inmates frightened her. Within a year she left, and joined the police force.

"[Here] I use at least some psychology to try to understand why some of the people I might have to arrest do what they do. I do help all kinds of people," she says.

She's still very involved in the community, and has received an MBE for her work.

Ms Elliott says Margaret is not alone in changing her career path.

"Between the ages of 33 and 42, about four in 10 of those in the 1958 cohort shifted from one type of occupation to another."


Anne had no problems envisaging her future self at age 11.

"It was a Monday and off to work. I work in a hairdresser, and looking for a shop - when I have saved up some money I will buy one."

But a family move left her without a college place to study for the job she wanted, and reluctantly she joined the bank - a workplace where opportunities were limited and where the height of career progression for her and the other female employees was making first cashier.

Kim's 1969 essay
1958 British Birth Cohort Study
Run by Centre for Longitudinal Studies, Institute of Education
Those in the study who've lost contact with researchers can get in touch with the centre
One of its three British cradle-to-grave surveys along with 1970 and 2000-1
Plus Medical Research Council's study of children born in 1946

"There weren't any female bank managers so you couldn't see yourself going up the ladder. But as I got older, I realised relationships and living were more important than a career," Anne says today.

After having three children, she left the bank and took a succession of jobs which fitted in around the school run, such as Avon Lady and making furniture for dolls houses.

Her husband, a builder, has been at the mercy of fluctuations in the property market and after a long period without work, the couple's debts mounted, culminating in him being declared bankrupt.

Anne's working life - largely part-time jobs fitted around family commitments - is typical of women of this generation, says Ms Elliott. Further research at the centre shows how many women moved to a lower status occupation after taking time out to care for their children.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I always wanted to be a doctor and yet was never encouraged at school or told I had the ability - so I think I was scared of failing and studied biochemistry instead. After gaining my PhD, I gave it all up and now have a successful marketing career. But I still wish I'd had the courage to study medicine.
Joanna, Atlanta, GA

Aged 10 or thereabouts, and loving books, but also being a child of the Apollo era, I wanted to be either a librarian or an astronaut. And in reality? Also being good with numbers, I became an accountant. I'm not too upset at not becoming a librarian but I would have loved to have flown the space shuttle.
Helen, Berkshire

I found my old record of achievement whilst clearing out my messy spare room this weekend. It was so cute. In it, my younger self had written about how I will work hard to achieve my dream job as an animator. Every single step I have made since I wrote that has been towards fulfilling this goal - which I did. I have worked across children's TV and next-gen games as a character animator and I love, love, love it.
Dani, Bristol, England

When I was 11 I already was given my first computer by my parents. I wanted to be the next Bill Gates. Not quite there yet but I'm a software architect so I'm still playing around on computers. For me, the goal hasn't changed but the perspective has.
Michael Simcoe, Bangor, Wales

My sister and I used to imagine we were surgeons and do 'operations' on each other, pretend to suture and mend broken arms and legs when we were little. As a teenager I was adamant that medicine was definitely not for me, especially as our dad wanted one of us to follow in his footsteps. I later went on to graduate from medical school and become a real-life doctor after all.
Katherine, Birmingham

One of my very first words was "tractor" and I always dreamed of being a tractor/digger driver. I fulfilled that ambition in my teens and early 20s and now I work for a large construction machinery company in the world where I now teach people how to design them for a living. This also means I have unlimited access to a vast array of the very best big boys toys known to man. No wonder I'm always smiling as walk into the office each day.
Simon Wright, Cheshire, England

I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. Although I am not one, I work as an aerospace engineer, which is the practical implementation of my dream. I may not get to space, but my work will.
Cristina, Bristol

The thing is we still focus on professions "what do you want to be" if you look at it form a broader "what do you want to do," a different picture emerges. Think about the aspects of that profession that made you want to be, say, a doctor and see if those things that attracted you are a feature of what you now do. I desperately wanted to be an actor. The bit I liked was standing in front of people and having people listen to what I have to say. I get to do that job every day in what I do (manager).
Rob, London

I switched from being in the police, to social work, to other forms of caring-type jobs when I was a kid. After a few years feeling around in the wilderness (including a brief but awful stint in the forces) I started a psychology degree and immediately loved it. Now a forensic psychologist, so guess I finally found my destiny in a caring profession.
Aeriel, up north

At 15 I wanted to be a vet, but my headmistress, who was one of the old school, said no self-respecting farmer would want a female to attend his prize bull. I later had a change of heart and entered the nursing profession, where I spent the best part of 43 years.
Elaine Whitham, Congleton England

When I was a little girl I was always painting and drawing, and I wanted to grow up to be an artist and own a cattery. I am now a successful children's book illustrator, but I have just the one cat.
Sarah, Chichester, UK

My whole childhood and teen years I wanted to be an astronaut and visit the moon and I am now lucky enough to be sending this e-mail from MARS!
...sorry I meant eating a MARS on lunch break from my IT job.
Mark, London

The only job I ever wanted to do was to go to sea. At 11 or 12 I wasn't clear exactly what it was I was going to do at sea when I got there. I suppose I had some romantic notion that life at sea was all sunshine and fun. However, I did join the Merchant Navy as an engineer and 17 years later came ashore and started to look after ships from a desk. I am still in the business and still enjoying it.
Robert James, London

I have a sheet of official primary school paper from 1978 which asks what I want to be when I leave school - and at 10 years old I have written "computer programmer". And here I am, all this time later, in IT. My whole school/college career was aimed at this profession and apart from my Saturday job in a supermarket, I've never worked at anything else. How I wish I'd chosen something else.

When I was a child, I wanted to be an ice skater, an England footballer (mens' team) but also the team medic, a doctor, an actress, a pianist, an RAF fighter pilot, a long-distance lorry driver, a relief worker, the wife of Prince Edward and a writer. I now work as a freelance writer, probably the only option on my list that is still open to me.
Catherine O, Maidenhead, UK

I wanted to be a dentist from about 11 years old. I'm currently sitting in my surgery waiting for my next patient 16 years later.
Rhys, Wales

As a child I always wanted to be a doctor and help my sisters who were frequently ill and would not play with me. I did become a doctor after graduating medical school in Afghanistan. Arriving in the UK soon after that, my worst nightmare was not being able to practice medicine at all. I am now a doctor working in the NHS and loving every minutes of it.
Asif Faizy, Basingstoke

I wanted to be a vet or join the forces. As there was no money, or encouragement going spare, being a vet was out of the question so I opted for the Army. One back injury later, I have found a niche within environmental management, with lots of support and encouragement from family and a previous manager I now class as a friend. I always loved nature as a child...
Lisa F, Shrewsbury, UK

From about the age of 10 I wanted to join the Royal Navy. My uncle had served in the RN - I heard the stories of the Far East, and think that lit the fire. At 16 I joined Ganges, went on to become a CPO WEA Submariner, served in the Falklands on the Sheffield. Good times.
John Young, Glasgow

When I was a child, I was allured by the mystery of Argos. When I used to walk past with my mother, I would point it out and say how I wanted to work there when I was an adult. I had completely forgotten about that until some years later, when I was working part-time to support my studies guessed it, Argos. I've now got my degree, and started my career in the IT/Finance sector, but I am always very proud to say I have had my dream job in life already.
Michael, Kent

At the age of three I announced to my mum that I wasn't going to primary school; I was going to nurses' college. In three months time I'll qualify as a doctor. I wasn't far wrong.
Rachel, Manchester

They say never work with children or animals, my girls did both. One is a teacher and the other is a veterinary student and that's what they wanted since they were about four years old. Well done girls.
Russell O'Brien, Nottingham

I always wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. I'm writing this from my PGCE course. Guess dreams can come true.
Becky, London, UK

I wish I had had my daughter's foresight when I was 11. She has been adamant for the last five years (she's 15 now) that she wants to be a marine biologist. Had I thought of it when I was 11, I would have studied for it with more enthusiasm than even she is showing now. As it is, I have ended up a financial adviser in rural Norfolk. Not ideal, but at least I'm near the sea.
David, King's Lynn

Like many children I had an ambition - to be a flute-playing, ballet-dancing nun. Obviously The Sound of Music had made a huge impression on me. I learnt ballet and the flute, so two out of three wasn't bad.
Jane Gordon Clark, Guildford, UK

One day at the supermarket, my little daughter said she wanted to be a check-out girl when she grew up. Now she runs mathematical models of atmospheric chemistry on a supercomputer at NCAR, Boulder, Colorado.
John, Clacks, Scotland

I wanted to be an air hostess. That dream died when I grew no taller than 5ft. Such is life I suppose.
Emma J, Aldershot UK

Currently my two daughters aged six and three want to be a Princess and a Tooth Fairy respectively.
Jonathan Smith, Warboys

Our eldest son wants to be The Grand Old Duke Of York, & his brother an "ice-cream van man". I wanted to be a pathologist, ended up in customer care, then a full-time mum.
MJ Golinski, Midlands

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