How many people are working in their dream job? And are they happy?

How many of us are working in our dream job? And are we happy? Find out what Legal & General learned in their career survey.

We often hear the phrase “dream job”, but how many of us are actually following the career path we envisaged as a child? At a time when working habits are shifting, we wanted to capture the British public’s attitude towards their career and life goals.

Do we still harbour the same childhood dreams, or does adulthood and our experiences change our priorities? Legal & General have commissioned a survey of 2,000 UK adults (all of whom are employed today) to find out whether their childhood dreams ever materialised. Here’s what they say they learned.

Dreaming big in childhood

Childhood is a time when we can dream the impossible and let our imaginations soar. And while the youngest children might aspire to become astronauts from a cardboard box spaceship, we asked our respondents to think back to a later time – when they were 10-15 years-old – and recall what their early career aspirations were.

What do the children of today dream of becoming when they grow up?

In what will be music to the ears of headteachers, the dream job during childhood – at least according to the adults we polled – was to teach. This was most pronounced in Wales, where 14% said their childhood dream was to become a teacher.

For many educators, teaching is a lifelong vocation and is more than just a pay cheque. One teacher told us: “I always remember my favourite primary school teacher and that stuck in my head.”

But it’s fair to say that every dreamer thinks differently.

Women were significantly more likely than men (16% versus 4%) to have dreamt of becoming a teacher when they grew up. Men were most likely to opt for ‘sportsperson’ (14%), compared to 1% of women who said the same.

In the north-east, the biggest childhood dream was to become a police officer or detective (13%).

Younger adults (18-24 year-olds) were much more likely to say they wanted to become lawyers (10%) when they were children, compared to just 1% of people aged over 55.

But what was behind these early childhood aspirations? We asked the public what inspired their dreams – and here are the top five answers.

I was inspired by a job or industry I saw on TV / in film30%
The job or industry was relevant to my hobbies30%
I was interested in specific school subjects relevant to this job or industry24%
I was encouraged or influenced by my teachers16%
I thought it would make me look cool16%

Do dreams become reality?

While few of us get to headline Glastonbury or score the winning goal in a cup final, that’s not stopping some Brits from making their childhood dreams a reality.

According to the adults we polled, one in four (25%) are currently working in their dream childhood job, but the remaining three-quarters (75%) said they’re not.

As you can see below, there are regional differences in the realisation of childhood dreams.

N.B. The figures are ‘net’ based on the percentage of people who aren’t working in their dream job, but in some cases are working in their dream industry.

What jobs are we doing now? 

Everyone’s dream is different, and if we dig a little deeper, we can observe whose dreams really came true.

We asked adult professionals whether their childhood dream was ever realised, and apart from those whose dream line of work was ‘other’, here are the top five ‘yes’ responses.

Dream childhood jobDream fulfilled
Business owner7%
Police officer / detective5%

It appears that some dreams are more within reach than others. While teachers were the most likely to have achieved their goal, of those whose dream job never materialised, ‘vet’ was the dream profession most likely to never come to pass.

However, some clouds have a silver lining. Of those who said they’re not working in their dream childhood job, 22% said they’re nevertheless working in their dream industry.

What’s the secret behind those who followed their dream? Among those who said they were interested in a specific school subject that was relevant to their dream job or industry, 30% said they are now working in their dream childhood job.

Indeed, some professionals told us about the emotional pull of certain career paths, which starts at a young age. One nurse was inspired by their upbringing in a family of health workers, adding that “going into nursing was meant to be”.

Another nurse went to night school to obtain their qualifications while working full-time. “I then started my nurse training and I have never been happier.”

What happened to our dreams?

Of course, we all change during life’s journey, and different experiences – from studying at school to the people we encounter – mean the best-laid plans don’t always work out the way we intend. We explored some of the reasons why people find themselves in certain jobs.

As the results show, there are a whole host of reasons why people did (and didn’t) pursue their original dream:

  • Men said they were more motivated by salary than women – 31% of men chose their current job as it had a good salary, compared to 21% of women.
  • People in the East of England were most likely to select ‘location’ as their reason for choosing their current job (20%), while those in Northern Ireland were the least likely (10%).
  • Of those who didn’t follow their dream path, more than a fifth (22%) cited a lack of self-belief or confidence.

Was the dream worth it?

We all have those ‘sliding doors’ moments which define the next chapter of our lives. We wanted to explore how those who followed their dream – and those who took a different path – feel about their career choices now.

The good news is that generally speaking, the public are satisfied with their work decisions.

Happiness of course means different things to different people, as we explored in our research on the UK’s happiest places, but the overall picture is a nation where workers usually have ‘no regrets’ about their chosen path.

We discovered:

  • People would like to stay in their current job for an average of 14 years. But among those currently working in their dream childhood job, this rises to 10.21 years.
  • 84% of those who are working in their dream childhood job are happy in their role, compared to 66% who are not working in their dream childhood job or industry.
  • Only 6% of those who are working in their dream childhood job are unhappy in their role.

It’s worth remembering that no two lives are the same, and as one person told us: “My childhood dream and actual job are streets apart. However, I am still happy I have pursued this career.”

Time for a career change?

Even when we’re in the swing of things career-wise, our hopes and dreams can change. Of the adults we surveyed, 66% have made or considered making a career change, rising to 74% among 18-24 year-olds.

But the ‘dreamers’ are much likelier to stay put. Almost half (46%) of those who are working in their dream childhood job have not made or considered making a career change.

To give us some additional context, we asked those who’d made (or considered making) a career change why exactly they’d come to this decision.

For many, the motive is not money for money’s sake, but the material changes that money can unlock. One former zookeeper told us they quit their dream job after a decade because “there are not enough opportunities in the industry to earn a liveable salary and to move the rest my life forwards, such as buying a house or having a family”.

But while money and work-life balance was cited as a key factor for many, it’s notable that 15% of those who’ve considered or pursued a career change did so to follow their childhood dream.

Regionally, there were various reasons people gave for considering or acting upon a career change:

  • 50% of people in Wales wanted a better work-life balance – the highest of any region.
  • 44% of those in the South East cited finances as their reason – the highest of any region.
  • 22% of people in Yorkshire and Humber cited changing priorities over the pandemic – the highest of any region.

Beyond our wildest dreams

As our survey shows, even with the changes that life throws our way, many Britons follow their childhood dreams and never look back. And for those who tread a different path, dreaming big can often mean taking on new challenges and shifting priorities to protect our loved ones. So perhaps the dream never dies, even if it changes along the way.