As long as I can remember, I’ve always understood that when people asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” what they were really asking was, “What career do you want to have when you grow up?”

What’s strange is that none of the words in the first question denote anything job or career-related. This means that our understanding of the question must rely on connotations. Even though the question only denotatively asks about what one wants to be as an adult (or a “grown-up”) — which could be a wide range of things, like a parent, a good person, a reader, etc. — we interpret the meaning of the question very narrowly, so that it just refers to jobs or careers. Why would we reduce what could be a beautifully open-ended question to a depressingly close-ended one?

Careerist ideology. Instead of independently thinking through apparently enigmatic questions like being and one’s future, we prefer to defer to culturally and societally fabricated answers — e.g. careerist ideology, by which I mean a belief system based on the idea of the career, which holds the virtuosity of careers as self-evident and considers them centrally important to being.

In a society where careerist ideology is predominant, when the question of “what to be when you grow up” arises, we connote the condition of “being” accordingly and allow our thought to be guided and constrained. The consequence is that we often confuse or equivocate “being” with “being a (specific) career,” and not exclusively in the context of this question.

What scares and intrigues me is that we mostly process these connotations unconsciously — that is, once we’re past a certain age, the intended meaning of this question is automatically clear to us. This careerist ideology exists within us largely outside our conscious awareness.

Careerist ideology can be primarily explained by what’s sometimes called a conjunction fallacy — mistakenly believing that a conjunction of events (a hot and sunny day) is more probable than a single event (a hot day). When explaining this concept in lecture, my cognitive psychology professor gave us the following example: “Imagine a health survey was conducted on adult males. Mr. F was included. Which is more probable? (1) That Mr. F has had one or more heart attacks, or (2) That Mr. F has had one or more heart attacks and is over 55 years old? Studies show that about 55 percent of people say they believe (2) is more likely,” even though it’s not!

The probability of two events co-occurring (Mr. F having had one or more heart attacks and being over 55 years old) can only be less than or equal to the probability of one of the events occurring (Mr. F having had one or more heart attacks or the probability of Mr. F being over 55 years old), never greater.

“To be” does not necessitate “to be career.” Obviously there are many other ways to be, but in our career-oriented society, we casually believe in just the one partially because of this conjunction fallacy (which, in full, is a conjunction fallacy from casual reasoning). But there’s a deeper question: Why and how do we regularly commit the conjunction fallacy? Why and how is our probability judgment frequently distorted?

Psychologists have a few explanations, but one prominent explanation pertains to how we represent these scenarios in our minds. When we imagine someone having a heart attack, we typically imagine an elderly person, and so we sometimes falsely conclude that being old and having a heart attack is more likely than just having a heart attack.

So it is with careerism. The careerist ideology in our society is so predominant that we often assume that being an adult and having a career is more likely than just being an adult. When we imagine ourselves as adults, we imagine ourselves with careers, because many of the adults we know have careers. Because modern life (or perhaps more accurately postmodern life) is hyper-saturated with media that what we imagine for ourselves as adults highly depends upon the simulacra shown on television. How many television shows today aren’t only about a character with a career, but are about the career itself?

Why would we reduce what could be a beautifully open-ended question that offers the opportunity to actualize the highest potentials of human creativity to a depressingly closed-ended one that basically offers a choice between two collars (blue or white)? I have maybe avoided this bigger question by delving specifically into careerist ideology. Careerist ideology is but one facet of a much larger system, spanning multiple levels of analysis, not least of which is economics (i.e., capitalism). Understanding this single but critical facet of our collective societal consciousness can potentially awaken us to related latent mechanisms in our thinking.

My inkling is that individual people, once awakened from their dogmatic slumbers, would choose to focus on becoming more than just a lame career. Cultural thought-control mechanisms, like the question of what to be, hinder the human creativity that precedes our great capacity for freedom. In recognizing these mechanisms we enable ourselves to push past the hindrances they impose. But then we’re immediately confronted with another challenge: the challenge of independently answering the deeper philosophical questions that ideology answers for us.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.

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