Not What, But Who

What do you want to be when you grow up? Baby boomers grew up hearing this question from our elders all the time. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it was that many of our parents were raised during the Depression. The memories of joblessness and homelessness were frightening and soul-scarring. Just the stories of those times and the optics of breadlines were enough to leave quite an impression.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Like so many boys, I wanted to have a macho job. So I leaned towards being a policeman or a firefighter or a soldier. I also wanted to be a cowboy, though I didn’t exactly know what cowboys did in the 20th century…

The concern with a choice of occupation didn’t ever let up. Most of my peers and I had to have at least some idea of what we wanted to study in college so we could get good jobs. I remember a few friends at college who were pre-med because their parents had decided that they would be premed. They were miserable, but they felt constrained by their parents and family to respond to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up,” with the noblest of answers: “A doctor.”

In the old days, we Boomers felt like we had to have an affirmative answer to all questions about our future employment. It was if as our worth was measured according to whether or not we were in the groove that would lead us to a workplace – any workplace. The idea of a gap year – in our day it was called, ‘taking a year off’ – was viewed with some suspicion.Where are you going to go? What will you do? The questions were always tinged with some sarcasm and doubt. If one were bound for Europe with a backpack and a guidebook to youth hostels across around the world, the suspicion was that one was going to smoke hash in Amsterdam and get in trouble, or just ‘be a bum.’

If you ask young kids today what they want to be when they grow up, they will typically not have a clue. If you ask the same kids the same question when they’re 20 or 30, they might still shrug their shoulders. So few students have a destination job in mind when they enter college – and when they graduate, too. And given how often they will change positions in the course of their lifetimes, I suppose that makes some sense.

How much does what we want to do when we grow up really matter? In all those many years of answering the question about our employment future, no one asked something far more critical. It’s a question we need to be asking our kids and grandkids. It’s not “What do you want to be when you grow up.” Rather, we need to ask,”WHO do you want to be when you grow up?”

Millennials and younger rarely have an answer to the question. And if they do, often they will say, ” I want to be rich and famous,” or “I want to be a pro baller.” They want to be known like the Kardashians, who are famous for absolutely no reason (why ARE they famous?).

What sort of human being are you going become? How will you use your education to be a mensch? Who do you want to be in the eyes of the world? In your own eyes? What are you willing to do to make the world a better place? These are the questions we should be asking our younger generations. And frankly, we should be asking these questions of ourselves.We should be wondering out loud what kind of legacy we want to create. We should not shy away from challenging ourselves to measure how much time we spend on deeds of lovingkindness. Climate change is ravaging the earth – right now. Antisemitism is growing. Asylum seekers are being treated like criminals. There’s work to do.

Who do you want to be? 

Shabbat Shalom,


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