Why I wanted to be an accountant when I was little

Published on 22 April 2021 by Adam Leigh

If you had asked the eight-year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have told you I fancied serving in the army or being an accountant like my father. Indeed, I was obsessed that he had a drinks cabinet built into his office desk, which seemed the epitome of sophistication.  Of course, I had very little knowledge about the thrills of double entry bookkeeping or VAT registration, but he also had an alligator skin attaché case which was pretty cool and kept a 5 Iron in a cupboard to practice his swing in lulls during the exotic audit-filled days.  As for the army, I knew they had assault courses and rope swings which looked fun, but was fairly oblivious to some of its harsher realities. Things of course don’t quite pan out as I hoped and a career in advertising ensued, but since I hate both spreadsheets and war, I am not really complaining.

What were your childhood career ambitions? 

Chances are they are not what you are doing now. Some of us are born with a burning hunger for power and glory. Apparently, Theresa May wanted to be the first female Prime Minister and was irritated to be beaten to the role in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher. Our current Prime Minister was a little vaguer in his aspirations (funny that) and according to The Times in 2019, simply wanted to be ‘World King’, a title yet to be invented other than by a few baddies in James Bond films.  His Etonian predecessor David Cameron had no such lust for global domination, once telling Tesco Magazine in an interview that when he was little, he simply loved the countryside and wanted to be a truck driver. Of course, he did.

Most famous actors aspired to prosaic professions like scientists, doctors, teachers or sportspeople.  Indeed, once we graduate from our eccentric childhood whims, we all settle on more realistic goals as teenagers when we realise our limitations. By the time I was thirteen, I knew that my best place on the football pitch was goalpost, my acting career would be seriously inhibited by a slight lisp coupled with a lack of basic talent and I was more likely to split my trousers than the atom, so feeble was my aptitude for science.

Leeds Becket University published a study last year which showed that 12% of adults dreamed of being a teacher, followed by vet (8%), doctor (6%), professional athlete (5%), nurse (4.8%) and scientist (4.8%). Politics however proved a turn-off for those questioned, with fewer than one per cent of adults (0.2%) saying it’s what they dreamed of doing when they were a child. And being adored by millions also scored low, with only 0.6% of Brits saying they wanted to be a celebrity when they grew up. In fact, more people wanted to become an accountant, (1.1%) so I was clearly ahead of my time.

The study also found that nearly a quarter (22.5%) of Brits are now pursuing their childhood career ambition. Of those following their chosen path, 38% are teachers, 11% are lawyers and 10% are scientists. Somewhere down the line, the foolish optimism of youth is bludgeoned by the basic need for stability, love, a family and financial stability.

This is further illustrated by the 2020 OECD study ‘Dream Job. Teenager’s Career Aspirations and The Future of Work’ which highlighted the mismatch between young people’s career aspirations and jobs, and the impact this will have on the world economy, based on a survey of 500,000 15-year-olds from 41 countries.While the world of work has undergone huge changes since the survey first carried out in 2000, the results show that the career expectations of young people have shifted little over this period and disappointingly have actually narrowed. More young people now appear to be picking their dream job from among the most popular, traditional occupations, like teachers, lawyers or doctors. And their choices are heavily influenced by gender and social background.

Andreas Schleicher,  OECD’s Director of Education and Skills concluded: “too many teenagers are ignoring or are unaware of new types of jobs that are emerging. The analysis suggests that, in many countries, young people’s career aspirations increasingly bear little relation to actual labour market demand.” 

How depressing.

We are conditioned to choose career paths based on what we see not what we might want. The limitations of our experience, the constrictiveness of educational systems and lack of social mobility acts as a giant prophylactic to imagining different outcomes.

Look, I can’t tell you all how to break down all of these barriers. I can barely remember my phone number these days, so a plan for changing our divisive, discordant and fractured society is beyond me. But I do believe that the joy of being young is to see the limitless potential and opportunities ahead, not the traffic cones and roadworks blocking the way.

So, take this tip from this once would-be paratrooper with a love of bookkeeping: encourage those embarking on careers to recall the craziness of their childhood dreams. A career choice thirty years ago was a life commitment. Now it is a momentary decision that can easily be undone. Career contentment will come with a more naïve approach when selecting the next role and celebrating its unexpectedness.   Remember what it was like to be in shorts and planning a life spent inventing on the moon. 

Meanwhile, aged 56 I have managed to fulfil an ambition I have had since I was a teenager and write a novel, ‘The Curious Rise of Alex Lazarus’. On May 6th you can judge for yourself if I should just stuck with the dream of accountancy and the thrill of a desk with a drinks’ cabinet.