Daddy, when are you going to get a real job?


Ho, ho, ho, the funny things that kids say. They sometimes get things a bit wrong, its funny, but its cute. It makes adults feel clever because they have one over on them.
Cue, my funny kid story…

My six year old daughter turned to me the other day and said, “Daddy, when are you going to get a real job”.

“What?” says I. “I have got a real job. What do you mean?”.

“You know, a real job. Like a teacher or someone who runs something.”

“Well, I do sometimes teach and I even sort of run something.”

[Sceptical face from child]

“OK” I say, planning to get to the bottom of this. “What is a proper job?”

“You know, like a teacher”

“Yes, OK, but what else? What should I do to get a real job?”

“Well you could work there” [points at the red and white sign of “In and Out Chicken”]

“Sorry – so my job at the University isn’t real, but if I worked at In and Out Chicken it would be a real job.”

[Her reluctant nod leads me to think that she probably thinks that I’m unemployable in anything approaching a “real job”.]

Taking a different tack I try and move into teacher mode.

“I think what you mean is that you can’t really imagine what I do, because you’ve never seen it. You know about schools and take away chicken shops [note – I hardly ever feed my children from take away chicken shops] but you don’t really know about universities. A university is like a school really, but for older people, it is a place where you learn.”

[More sceptical looks] followed by a memory.

“A__’s dad works in a university. He’s a historian. That’s a proper job.”

“Hold on a minute, how can being a historian be a proper job. I do basically the same as a historian except I look at people who aren’t dead. That’s it, I’m basically a historian of the present – a presentorian!”

By this point my daughter has spotted that I’m talking nonsense and lost interest in the subject.

So what does this prove? Possibly that no matter what your Dad does he’ll always be mainly your Dad and his working life will seem unreal and distant. Possibly that I’m not very good at articulating the joy of careers research to an unsuspecting six year old. Possibly that children are so insulated from the world of work to that they can’t even imagine it and are left with only the roles that they encounter by chance in their day-to-day lives.

I remember reading some study when I was doing a year of undergraduate psychology which talked about how children would ape the behaviour of their parents in play. But, when the men (it was an old study) left the home to work the children would just go and stand around the other side of the house and wait before coming back. From memory we were taught about this in the context of child development and gender roles. But, given that my child now wants me to work in In and Out Chicken I think that its implications might be more about our societies failure to provide young people with insights into the nature of work.

It seems to me that for children to understand something about what the adults in their lives fill their days doing could only be a good thing. I guess that as parents we have responsibility for this, but it would be nice if schools also saw themselves as having a role in this.  Career education with young children has always been controversial but it seems to me that it is just a part of children’s exploration of the world and their understanding of their place within it.

Anyone for a chicken bucket?


  1. Very nice story – and I think that you should probably put "presentorian" on your business cards from now!I don’t have kids who ask me, but my family used to ask me when – as a PhD student, then as a freelancer – I was going to get a "real job". I don’t know what it is about what I do (and did as a PGR) that wasn’t "real". Those kinds of questions have fallen away quite a bit by now, but I still get the feeling sometimes when meeting old school friends that they’re thinking, "Come on, when are you going to become an employee somewhere – and somewhere <i>normal</i> for goodness’ sake…"

  2. Thanks Nathan. I’m sure that there must be more of us out there doing "unreal" jobs than the lucky few who have solid, easy to understand "real" jobs. Sometimes I envy them, sometimes I’m glad that my life isn’t so predictable.

  3. Brilliant story! I am planning a session in my children’s primary school where they try and guess the occupations of three guests by asking questions. The key though is to help them ask the key questions and encourage them to think about work beyond what they initially see. Therefore I am running a session beforehand to help them think about their work values, rather than tasks and helping them to find the right questions to ask. I am trying to get away from ‘what do you want to be when you grow up’ but rather what appeals to you about working.Incidentally, my seven year old was recently suprised to discover that we get paid to go to work. Perhaps he thought we go just to get away from him or because we are enjoying ourselves – which of course we are!

  4. I also loved this. Strangely, though, it’s my husband’s job (accountancy aka, in child’s speak, doing sums and making sure a company has its money in the right place at the right time) that seems less real (or is that just less appealing?) than mine (helping people to understand what they want to do when they ‘grow up’ and teaching them ways to do it). Are schools using the right sort of language to describe the world of work? (love also Debbie’s session idea).

  5. I too love Debbie’s lession idea. For some while now we’ve been placing greater emphasis on career learning than career decision-making or even planning – so at one level, it comes as an expected delight that what children learn about career is so idiosyncratic but it is also an expression of how they see the world (or their particular slice of it). I too have a funny story about my sister as a tiny child having been told about my father working at the atomic energy authority, saying to another child, that "he paints the numbers on bombs!" which made perfect sense to her – someone must do it! – even though no one had told her so. I think the serious bit is that we learn socially and social learning theory (a behavioural account of personality) suggests we associate ideas together, even where that results in things that don’t bear out in practice. For example, when programmes like Cracker and Wire in the Blood are shown on TV people think foresensic psychology is glamorous; when the economy crashes, all financiers/bankers become crooks; and all lumberjacks are men (but on a good day they dance on logs) – tee hee, Jane

  6. I also want to hear how Debbie’s session went! Sounds like a great idea.I recently took our daughter – the one looking sceptical in Tristram???s post above – to work with me for the day. I wanted to see if I could show her what my work was like so she might have a better understanding of this ever-present thing in our lives (???Work??? & ???The University???). So off to work we went. She watched me talk with prospective students and their parents, eat lunch (in a very professional manner) and pass out information. When the work bit was done we explored the delights of the university together. This included the paternoster lift, the huge library, the view from the tallest building, a drink in the coffee shop and playing in swivel chairs. I showed her my business card. This was met with ???Wow, can I have one????Near the end of the day she turned to me and said that she thought that she had just not understood that I have a ???real job??? because she hadn???t really seen it with her own eyes. When I asked her what her favourite part had been, she said it was watching me talking to students. I don???t quite know if I dare say it out loud but I think she might have been a bit proud of me. How odd – and lovely.

  7. So glad I found this.

    I would be much wealthier if I had a pound for every time my very much grown up friends have asked “when will you get a real job”; or even when my clients have asked “would you like to stay with us and do a real job?”.

    To understand this statement you need to know that I am a career freelance interim manager, focussed on change management. Specifically the part of the change cycle where an organisation is stuck and needs to move on, so they need an external catalyst etc. I work on a contract basis, well rewarded financially and in terms of job interest, but short term. Hence, not a real job to most people!

    In your words, children and young people are “insulated from the world of work …..they can’t even imagine it”.

    In my work, most people have difficulty understanding the things they have never experienced. therefore, “insulated from the world of alternative ways of working …..they can’t even imagine it”

    Have a great week


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