Wednesday, August 26, 2015

"No, You're Not Going to be an Astronaut When You Grow Up"--Transphobia Translated

(Dr. Richard A. Friedman is a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of depression with drugs. He has a side gig writing pop psychology opinion pieces for the New York Times, and on August 22nd, the Times published an op-ed of his on trans people. Friedman has no special knowledge or expertise on trans issues or gender transition. In fact, he cites ridiculously outdated forty-year-old research on the "sissy boy syndrome" (which basically held that boys who wish to and are permitted to play with dolls grow up to be "homosexuals"). But Friedman uses his social authority as a professor of medicine to frame his personal negative opinions about gender transition and trans experience as The Truth. And his opinion piece immediately became one of the Times' most emailed and read items. This blog post is a parody of Friedman's piece, following his line of arguments but replacing sexuality and gender with career paths.) 

How Changeable Are Career Interests?
By Richard A. Friedman, MBA
Professor of Finance, Burberry Business School

Space exploration has been much in the news recently, with the New Horizons spacecraft providing dramatic images of Pluto's "heart," and astronauts on the International Space Station shown munching on lettuce grown in orbit. While astronauts make up a tiny percentage of the employed population, they have been getting a lot of media attention.

Certainly we should allow people to have whatever careers they wish, including atypical ones like becoming an astronaut. Society once looked down at "computer geeks," but today developers of software and applications run successful businesses and are embraced by many. We now know that therapies aimed at curing nerdiness by withholding computers and forcing individuals to play sports or take ballet classes are not effective. Is something similar true for those who profess a desire to pursue a career as an astronaut?

Scientific evidence does seem to show that while most people are intrinsically drawn either to jobs that pay well, or jobs that are stable and secure, career desires exist on a spectrum. Some people are, for whatever reason, committed to careers that are both insecure yet rarely make them wealthy, such as being in a band or venturing into space.

So, how should career counselors approach individuals who profess an interest in becoming a drummer or piloting a space craft, and state they cannot be happy unless they enter these careers?

Unfortunately, research shows that people who pursue these careers do not achieve the happiness they seek. Many aspirant rock stars find themselves playing small gigs in local bars, unable to support themselves, disappointing and angering their parents. The chances of those who wish to become astronauts ever being launched on a mission are low, and those who do go into space face mortal risks that destabilitze relationships with spouses and children. It seems that many would be much better off getting a job in middle management, and making Spotify playlists or building model spaceships as a hobby. And, in fact, this is what many people in the end choose to do. It seems that an interest in unstable careers is more malleable and is more of a choice than a fixed characteristic such as nerdiness.

Still, we are good libertarian individualists, and believe that people should be able to make whatever career choices they wish. If a grown man or woman believes that they could be the next Beyoncé or Neil Armstrong, despite all the eye-rolling they get from others, so be it.

But what about the children?

The issue of whether to encourage children who say they plan to be astronauts when they grow up is extremely controversial. In fact, most career counseling professionals I spoke with refused to discuss the issue on the record. I was warned that if I dared to write about the reasons why such encouragement is a bad idea, I would be attacked by the astronaut lobby. 

But I must speak truth to power. And that truth is that children often have unrealistic fantasies about their future careers. Many children state that they want to dig up dinosaurs or be elected president or become a professional gymnast when they grow up. And studies show that of all the children who write a school essay about their intent to become an astronaut, as many as 80% may grow up to have typical corporate jobs in adulthood.

Now, when astronauts are interviewed, we do find that virtually every one of them first expressed interest in this career as a young child. But how can we possibly tell whether a child who says they want to go into space some day will be one of these "persisters," when most children lose interest in such an insecure career path? So if you are, say, the parent of an 8-year-old who says she is going to be an astronaut, we can see why you might tell the child, "No, you won't."

Some claim that there are many studies that show that supporting children in their atypical career interests increases their self-esteem, improves their mental health, and betters their future financial success. But these are all flawed, because the researchers do not randomly assign the children studied to have typical or atypical career interests! Instead, we should focus on a forty-year-old study that found that boys who were allowed to obsessively play space-themed video games like Asteroid were likely to grow up to be nerds--not astronauts. Clearly, this study is much more relevant, and shows that we should not take a childhood interest in space seriously.

What is troubling is that many parents are in fact not just tolerating their children's probably transitory interests in atypical careers, but encouraging them. If the children claim an interest in space piloting, they are decorating their children's rooms with posters of the solar system, enrolling them in science enrichment courses, helping them with science-fair projects about comets--even sending children as young as 7 to Space Camp. Children who say they want to be pop stars are purchased instruments and enrolled in music lessons, given dance classes, permitted to adopt extravagant hairstyles, and applauded while participating in talent shows and even karaoke.

These actions may be irreversible.

What a school career counselor should do, given the social and psychological realities, is to tell parents to do nothing to encourage a child who expresses an interest in an insecure career, but take a wait-and-see approach. The parents should not enroll the child in science or music camp, or purchase them a telescope or keyboard. They should ask teachers not to encourage their children's stated interests in an insecure career. Children should not be allowed to wear t-shirts picturing the International Space Station or Skrillex. Career counselors should emphasize that most children will outgrow their youthful fantasies and become ordinary and respectable business and professional employees--accountants and assistant managers and customer service representatives.

Activists such as Neil DeGrasse Tyson and advocacy organizations such as the American Federation of Musicians do urge parents to support children's interests in astronomy and music.  They claim that children, even young ones, should be supported in any career interest they express, and that to refuse to do this is equivalent to the conversion therapy that was formerly practiced on computer nerds. Such a position is misguided. Career choices are malleable, and we must not take radical action based on cherished personal beliefs about valuing all careers equally.

We must be skeptical and demand more data, rather than damaging children by supporting their interests.