The 2017 Imagination Report: What Kids Want to Be When They Grow Up

The following was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life.

What do kids today want to be when they grow up? This is what Fatherly and New York Life were determined to find out with the Imagination Report, a survey of more than 1,000 kids under the age of 12. The results reveal a surprising amount about the cultural influences, gender norms, and financial realities facing kids today. Before you upend your life to provide for your 6-year-old’s dream job, keep in mind that the world is as fast-changing and fickle as your kid’s desires. Your little one might want to be a doctor after watching an episode of Doc McStuffins and then a singer after turning their attention to YouTube the following day. As such, this survey is not intended to be a resource for parents looking to start career planning for their kids very, very early, but a cheat sheet for caregivers who want to understand the source of kids’ ambition so that they can encourage it. Early encouragement, after all, sets kids up for emotional, academic, and even financial success. 

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The most popular careers for kids have changed little over the years. 

Based on our survey, the top five professions kids want to be when they grow up are consistent with what we’ve seen in prior years: doctor, vet, engineer, police officer, and teacher. This makes sense. Childhood dreams are less about the strategic deployment and future deployment of specific skills and more about admiration for particular adults or characters. It’s not a coincidence that many of the professions at the top of the list tend to involve interactions with kids or that the one that doesn’t, engineer, is fundamentally about building stuff, an activity many children savor.

The one big change since 2015, the year of our last report, is that the number one profession then — athlete — has bumped down to number eight. For boys, athlete still ranks as the third most popular dream job, but it doesn’t even crack the top ten for girls. The star power of athletes doesn’t seem as overwhelming as it did a few years back. Whether or not that’s a product of timing – it’s been two years since the last Olympics – or harder to track cultural trends is unclear. What is clear is that “police officer,” which moved to the number three slot this year after ranking 10 in 2015, is on the march.

Girls choose STEM fields, boys lean toward civil service.


Of all the wannabe doctors on this survey, a whopping 80 percent were girls. Girls were also more likely to pick STEM careers than boys whose picks leaned toward civil service — namely, police officer (79 percent boys) and firefighter (87 percent boys). Still, when it comes to the most generic STEM position, “scientist,” girls and boys were pretty much evenly split: 45 percent of would-be scientists were girls and 55 percent were boys. This seems to indicate that the parents, educators, and even show-runners putting continued emphasis on STEM skills and careers are making a substantive impact, especially for girls.

Californians want to go to space; New England kids draw outside the lines.


The top career choice is basically uniform across the country. Doctors are by far the top pick by kids in the West and the Mid-Atlantic, and second in the Great Lakes, Midwest, Southeast, and Southwest (in all of these places, “veterinarian” is the number one pick). In New England, doctor shares top billing with “firefighter.”

When you dive deeper into regional preferences, more stark contrasts emerge. Kids in the mid-Atlantic are the most likely to want to be a teacher. Kids in New England are the most likely to want to be an artist. Kids in the Southeast really, really want to be scientists. Kids in the Midwest are a bit less homogenous, with no single job grabbing more than 9 percent of respondents from the region. If SpaceX is inspiring an outsized number of kids to dream of visiting space – and it looks that way – it also seems likely that the company’s future engineering ranks will be filled by the future engineers of the Southwest.

Media has more of an influence on a child’s career choice than parents do.


One noteworthy finding from this year’s survey is that taken together, TV, movies, and online streaming sites like YouTube, are the top influencer for the career dreams of children. Entertainment sources topped “personal passion” as a cited influence for their career choices. In a close third place were “parents.” Other notable influences include books and school — so, thankfully, reading and doing homework with your kid still seems to have ample impact.

Go ahead and let your kid watch Doc McStuffins.

For years, there has been a widespread call in the United States for more doctors. With some 2.56 doctors per 1,000 people, the U.S. falls well behind countries like Austria, Norway, Sweden, Germany, and Switzerland — and if the decline continues, some worry staffing shortfalls could lead to compromised care and higher costs. Could cartoons be the solution? Nearly one-quarter of kids who want to be a doctor or veterinarian said they were influenced by the television show Doc McStuffins (the percentage is higher still for girls). Given that an estimated two percent (yes, we said two) of acting physicians in the U.S. are black women, the influence of a character like Doc McStuffins — a black girl who is a doctor to her stuffed animals and toys in the show — can’t be overstated. 

Parents feel their kids are prepared to follow their dreams — but are worried about financing them.

Some 36 percent of families don’t feel financially prepared to help children achieve their dreams even though 86 percent of parents feel they are exposing their children to enough in support of their dream. A whopping 92 percent of respondents are confident their kids will be able to achieve their dreams based on aptitude — but clearly are bogged down by financial worries.


The more money you have, the more likely you are to pursue the arts.

There was some uniformity across households making less than $150,000, with veterinarians and doctors consistently hitting the number one and two positions. Once a family earned more than $200,000, however, the career choices shifted toward the arts. The top career for these families was “musician,” followed by “artist” and “athlete,” which were tied for second. These were followed closely by “YouTuber” — a nascent career that primarily was chosen by those in the highest income brackets.

What obstacles will parents have to help their kids overcome?

While the biggest worry for parents was financial, money was by no means the only concern parents brought up. Self-doubt was the most common thing parents worried would get in the way of their girls’ dreams while an inability to focus was the biggest concern about boys. Reading through the survey results, it became clear that no two parents are nervous in the same way, but that a lot of parents proactively help their kids in similar ways. Here’s a sample of the hurdles parents fear may end up getting in the way of their kids’ dreams.

Having Kids
At seven, [my daughter] already realizes that motherhood may be at odds with a career in chemistry, and has decided to get experience in the field and raise children after she’s established.”

Taking Charge
“Nothing will hold her back but her own decisions in life.”

Prejudice
“Both [police officer and doctor] are male-dominated fields; she will have to overcome prejudice.”

Financial Security
“Growing up and trading her imagination and big ideas for finances and ‘normal’ adult responsibilities.”

Societal Collapse
“Societally-induced insecurities, financial collapse or stagnation, A.I. automation, exposure to human pettiness souring his empathetic nature.”

Nothing
“If she dreams big enough and believes she’s good enough, anything is possible.”

The parents who expressed these concerns also expressed a determination to provide their children with emotional support and time. Research suggests that this will likely help shy girls grow into confident women and distractible boys grow into focused men. It’s also clear that in helping their children refine their expectations and gear up for the challenges inherent in pursuing any given path, parents set kids up to handle disappointment well and keep moving forward.

Funny responses from kids.

For every dozen would-be doctors, there’s a kid who truly wants to be a dragon keeper. Here are some of the most, shall we say, imaginative career choices from the survey.

  • “Crazy cat lady” (8-year-old girl)
  • “Dancing unicorn” (2-year-old boy)
  • “Alligator” (3-year-old boy)
  • “Ninja” (multiple)
  • “Octopus” (2-year-old boy and 3-year-old girl)
  • “A fence doctor” (6-year-old girl)
  • “I don’t want to get big” (4-year-old boy)
  • “Dragon Keeper” (6-year-old girl)
  • “Ice Cream Man at Costco” (4-year-old boy)
  • “Librina” (a librarian ballerina; 8-year-old girl)

This article was produced in partnership with our friends at New York Life, who are committed to helping families be happy, successful, and good at life. Learn more at newyorklife.com.

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