How Much Are My Childhood Dream Jobs Really Worth?

Becoming the person I wanted to be when I was eight, all expenses included.

Janine Melnitz (Annie Potts) perfecting the office casual look in 1984’s Ghostbusters

Kids always know what they want to do when they grow up. Ask them and you’ll get a vision of a world full of footballers, firefighters, nurses, teachers, pirates, and Rihannas. Some will stick with their calling and become kind of people of people who say stuff like “I always knew I wanted to help people/be a doctor/explore space,” fixing their destinies at the point when the rest of us were just learning not to stick Play-Doh up our noses.

But would I have been better off if I’d stuck with one of my childhood dreams, or would I be drowning in student debt and resentment? Younger me had bushels of confidence in her ability to be whatever she wanted, up to and including becoming a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. Adolescence put a stop to all that, and my career path stumbled about before I fell into the kind of job (“content strategist”) that’s hard to describe to grown-ups, let alone eight-year-olds.

Did eight-year-old me have better instincts than I gave her credit for? Or was it better that I didn’t put my future in the hands of someone who was convinced she could telepathically communicate with her cat?

After the stock market collapse: Chalkie

Growing up in New Zealand in the ‘80s, my abiding memory of the stock market crash was that it made me want to be a chalkie. Chalkies were the young, exclusively female clerks, who dashed around trading floors writing up bids on a giant blackboard. To me they looked like the height of sophistication, all tight perms and power suits. In reality, it was a laborious job where you got constantly yelled at by men — there was all of one female broker at the Wellington stock exchange in 1987 — but, as this news clip shows, they could at least yell back:

Back in the Day: ‘Chalkies’ front and centre during NZX heyday

While chalkies made it through the crash, in 1991 electronic trading screens made them redundant. I might as well have daydreamed about becoming a buggy whip maker or eight track tape specialist. Brokers did survive, though automation may be coming for their jobs soon. Meanwhile, chalkboards haven’t been entirely disrupted by technology, with Whole Foods store artist jobs going for around $17 an hour.

How much I’m willing to invest in my dream now: $8.69 for an at-home perm kit for that late-1980s realness.

After learning that cookbook photography was a lie: Food Stylist

I was a big fan of eating and a big fan of finding out secrets, so when I heard about the tricks used to make food look more appetizing in photos, I was entranced. I wanted to be the person smearing Vaseline on cakes and shoving makeup sponges into taco shells. But a food stylist’s job is so much more than performing sleight of hand with toothpicks and hair gel.

In order to be the lucky person microwaving watery tampons to make background steam, I would require a culinary qualification, or at least some significant professional cooking experience. My two months making coleslaw for a supermarket deli wouldn’t get me far. A basic culinary arts degree can set you back as much as $52,250 for a top school.

Like their photographer colleagues, most styling jobs are freelance, which means a lot of time promoting, billing, and fending off “I can’t pay you but this job will be great exposure” requests. Assuming similar rates for styling as for photography, after four to five years as an assistant I could expect to earn between $29,000 and $35,000 a year.

But I got one assumption correct — you do get to eat a lot of the food. As reported, you can also spend three days spritzing a bottle of sports drink to get it “just right:”

Food Fluffers

How much I’m willing to invest in my dream: $12.28 for a bottle of Wild Root Hair Groom, which can double for milk in breakfast cereal shoots.

After watching too many historical mysteries: Archaeologist

The best part about wanting to be an archaeologist was telling people that real archaeology wasn’t anything like Indiana Jones. Not that I knew what real archaeology consisted of; I was less inspired by ancient history than by reading Agatha Christie mysteries set in exotic digs where professors were constantly on the verge of discovering priceless artifacts.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an archaeologist’s median pay is $63,190, which seems sweet: give me that pith helmet and direct me to the nearest non-cursed tomb. But to get there you have to spend a geological age in grad school, only to face an academic job market that’s not nearly as stable as it was in Dr. Jones’s day. Commercial archaeologist jobs exist, too, but these were hard hit by the financial crisis. The number of working archaeologists in the U.K. dropped by 30 percent after 2008, hit by a slowdown in the infrastructure spending that leads to environmental assessment work.

There’s another looming economic threat to the field, as the Trump administration persistently refuses to learn from history. The Archaeological Institute of America recently warned that proposed funding cuts to the humanities will have an “adverse effect” on a range of archaeological professionals:

Proposed 2018 Federal Budget Impact on the NEH and NEA – Archaeological Institute of America

How much I’m willing to invest in my dream: $25.49 for a folding shovel, to take advantage of any excavation opportunities on the go.

After seeing Annie Potts in Ghostbusters: Secretary

It used to embarrass me that I wanted to be a secretary and not a corporate hot-shot. But as a kid reared on Reagan-era comedies, secretaries had one of the only jobs that made any sense. “Businesswomen” seemed to mostly walk around quickly while carrying important files and doing cocaine, whereas the secretaries did the fun stuff: typing, sending letters, and sassing the boss.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the median salary at $37,230 for the collective “administrative assistant and secretary” category. But older secretaries aren’t being replaced by younger workers, with the International Association of Administrative Professionals has noticed a a 5 percent decrease in the under-40 age bracket among members. Workers report that their jobs are increasingly being stretched beyond their core tasks, while their pay stays the same. Employers increasingly make people do their own admin, a phenomenon that the Roosevelt Institute called “occupation creep” and explains why you’re stuck with the limited charms of the Outlook calendar function.

How much I’m willing to invest in my dream: $7.99 for a “You Don’t Have to be Crazy to Work Here But It Helps” coffee mug to toast the assistants of the world for all the BS they have to put up with.

After getting my first mechanical pencil: Architect

One boring conversation with an architecture student at a party cleared up any illusions I had about architecture. After half an hour of hearing about different types of insulation and resource consent, I was happy that I’d bombed out of technical drawing class when I was 14.

Architecture students rack up an average student loan debt of $40,000, and also have to pay over $1,000 a year on model materials. Those cute little decorative trees? One pack is $65. In 2005, CNN compared architecture with becoming a chef in terms of how little professionals would earn in comparison with the time and cost of training:

Jobs: Worst pay for the investment – Aug. 17, 2005

The hustle continues after graduation. Architects working in the U.S. must first pass a licensing exam that requires around three years as an intern where starting salaries sit around the $42,000 mark, if you get paid at all. Despite the American Institute of Architects calling for an end to unpaid internships, they are still common in a field where applicants regularly outnumber the available jobs. It sucks enough that I can’t buy a house in the current economy, but it would suck even more if my day job was helping to make them.

How much I’m willing to invest in my dream: $54 for the Lego Classic House Building Set that will also be my only chance at homeownership.

After Seoul 1988: Olympic Gymnast

There’s three years to go until the summer games in Tokyo, and if I’m to fulfill my destiny of twirling a ribbon towards gold, I will need serious funds. As well as coaching, travel, and living expenses, a single leotard can cost up to $1,200, depending on the amount of Swarovski crystals you require.

Corporate sponsorship is notoriously difficult to get if your name isn’t Michael Phelps or Shaun White, so that sweet Wheaties money can’t be counted on. Out of the ten top-ranking track and field stars, half reported having annual incomes lower than $15,000:

Olympians face financial hardship

The two countries that I’m eligible to compete for—Great Britain and New Zealand—provide some funding for their Olympians. Like the U.S., New Zealand pays out per medal you win. If I was the New Zealand Simone Biles, I could pull down $60,000 NZD for each of my golds plus another $55,000 NZD for a bronze, making a bit over $200,000 USD before taxes. Before that, though, I might be like the Team NZ cyclist who had to sell his gear in Atlanta to try and cover his living costs.

If I competed for Great Britain, I could apply for an Athlete Program Award depending on my perceived “Podium Potential.” In theory that’s up to £28,000 a year, with extra support up to £60,000 ($79,050 USD).

The bad news is that at 36 I’m nearly twice the average age of most gymnasts and my “Podium Potential” is essentially nil. But the good news is that there’s no upper age restriction on qualifying for competition, and Olympic ski jumper Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards still makes £50,000 a year despite not winning a single medal at the Calgary games:

Whatever Happened to Eddie the Eagle, Britain’s Most Lovable Ski Jumper?

How much I’m willing to invest in my dreams: $44.99 to buy a Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique-approved ribbon that I can twirl around in my bedroom while trying to recreate the Elektrobank video.

Margaret Howie still daydreams about becoming a space pirate.

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