“Dream jobs” are dying. It’s up to us to revive them.


Wren Bulawin

“Dream jobs” are becoming more unsustainable as living wages and qualifications rise. As a result, today’s youth is now tunnel-visioned into thinking the only paths to success are in the medical, engineering, law, or business fields. But just because the road less traveled is not as stable doesn’t mean we have to abandon it altogether.

Wren Bulawin, Open Canvas Manager, Assistant Features Editor

When I was younger, I wanted to be a zoologist.

I wanted to work with animals out in the wild, or do fieldwork like the Kratt brothers on TV. I wanted to study birds in a big aviary, and jot notes out in the jungle like my idol Jane Goodall. Even just three years ago, I was dead-set on the research path; little me would have never guessed that today, I would be entertaining the idea of changing my major to pre-med.

I knew other kids with big, wild dreams like I did, too. Kids who wanted to be firefighters, chemists, teachers, astronauts, chefs, and the like. I’d wager a good amount of money that they wouldn’t have taken no for an answer back then. But today is different; I’d wager a lot of those children now are on the path to becoming the next doctors, computer techs, or business majors. I’d bet that most of their dreams are long dead or dying, killed by their parents or the world we live in now. 

The American dream is dead, six feet under like our childhood career goals, all because the country has made it near impossible to live a good life working the jobs we want. Amidst a turbulent economy where 53% of Americans believe their dream jobs wouldn’t survive, today’s youth are being scared away from their dream jobs because of the financial instability that comes with them. According to a survey from last year, the most popular childhood dream nowadays is in the healthcare field—something definitely influenced by the 65% of parents who want their children to be financially successful alongside being happy. 

But why exactly are the jobs we once dreamt of as children dying out today? When pitted against a constantly-inflating living wage, high competition in the field, and high educational costs, the salary returns of most dream jobs are unsustainable in the long run. Interest rates are rising in an attempt to combat recent inflation—unfortunately, this means more student debt for those of us who need to take out loans in higher education to achieve dream careers in research or education. In addition, living wages are rising faster than salaries can catch up, with America’s lowest metropolitan living wage standing at nearly $90,000 for the typical nuclear family in 2023. Compare this to some of the most common childhood dream jobs: the median salary for education-centric jobs barely reaches $60,000, and most bachelor-level scientists barely scrape by making $72,000 a year. Master chefs only make $50,000, the entertainment industry makes an annual average wage of merely $49,000, and journalists even less at $48,000.

This essentially adds up to an unfortunate conclusion: unless your parents were smart with your college funds or flat-out rich, today’s incoming college students are better off aiming for a career that can land them a stable source of income as soon as they graduate before entertaining a semi-stable dream job only attainable after years of student debt. Given the economic situation, maybe our parents were right and we should all kill our childhood dreams to become doctors and nurses—a reasonable suggestion, considering that most of the highest-paying careers are all in the medical field. 

While this all sounds pessimistic and depressing, bear with me—I’m equally upset about this as you are. The economic situation shouldn’t be forcing us all into the doctor-lawyer-engineer-entrepeneur pipeline just to survive, because then what’s going to happen to all those dreams that we’ve abandoned? After all, every job has its niche in this ecosystem of dying dreams, and what we may consider “low-paying” jobs are actually the keystone careers of society. Without passionate educators or journalists, we’ll only be propagating a culture of constant misinformation and fear-mongering, led by whichever puppeteer is in power. Without field researchers, there will be nobody left to assess the damage we’ve caused and prove to the rising population of ‘doomers’ that the world can still be saved. Without actors and writers, nobody will be there to alleviate our sorrows through the books and movies we take for granted. Without firefighters and police officers, nobody else will be willing to put their lives on the line to protect society, and without essential service workers…well, I’m sure we’ve already learned that much from the pandemic.

Plus, if today’s youth feel as if their only options are the four highest-paying sectors, they’ll force themselves to abandon their life-long dreams and shove themselves into a job that they may have little to no passion for—a sure-fire path to poor mental health and occupational burnout. Studies have found that money is not a good long-term extrinsic motivator—rather, as monetary rewards increase, intrinsic motivation tends to decrease, and those tunnel-visioned solely on money are more likely to be more miserable at work. Miserable workers lead to half-hearted performance, and, well…let’s just say you wouldn’t want your future surgeon to be someone who half-heartedly skirted through medical school with the help of WebMD.   

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that doctors, lawyers, businesspeople, and engineers are unimportant. We need passionate people in those careers as much as anything else, if not more. But what we also need are young workers who are truly willing to fight for higher salaries and fair pay for their dream jobs. Young adults who are willing to take up the mantle and keep these lesser-paid industries alive, who are driven by the intrinsic passion to help others rather than success and salary alone. Young adults who, despite the scrutiny and scoffs they get from others complaining about wasted potential, are willing to reform their industry into one where everyone can have a fair shot at life.

And to get there, we also need supportive parents—parents who won’t immediately shoot down a dream just because it’s “unsustainable” in the long run. Parents who won’t try to force their children through the business-law-medicine-engineering path, but rather are willing to take the plunge, no matter how uncertain their futures seem, to support their children throughout their dream endeavors.

I admit that this comes from a place of privilege, one that assumes everyone has the financial backing to take these risks and chase their dream jobs on a whim. Obviously, not everyone is privileged enough to fund their dreams, especially if they require years of education and training first. But for those of us who are, we must keep our childhood dreams alive with the same passion of our younger selves—not only for the sake of that inner child, but for the sake of reforming these overlooked yet underpaid industries to ones where those with no other choice can at least have a fair shot at the American dream, too.

As for me, I haven’t changed my major from animal sciences yet—and though it may be tempting, I don’t have plans to do so anytime soon. Although financial stability is still at the forefront of my mind, my true passion lies in ecological and animal sciences. I know full well environmental zoology is nowhere near the highest-paying careers, nor the most stable, but I’m willing to take the risk and work hard to keep the field of my dreams alive—and whatever your undermined dream is, be it teacher, chef, actor, or whatnot, hopefully you can find the courage to fight for it, too.