By: Marina Milosheva, PhD Candidate, Social Informatics, Edinburgh Napier University

What do you want to be when you grow up?

Practically from the moment you start talking, you’re asked this question. As a child, you’re encouraged to make decisions about school subjects, activities and higher education, all in pursuit of a future career.

These decisions, which have major repercussions for how the rest of your life will unfold, are often hastily made.

Careers advice can be challenging to navigate and tends to focus on “moments of choice”: those crucial transition points at which you need to make career decisions, such as when leaving secondary school.

However, “moments of inspiration” are equally important. These are the times in which you are free to reflect on what you would really like to do, free of pressure or external influence.

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues affecting those of us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of beginning a career and taking care of our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or just making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and bring answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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Many young professionals in their 20s and 30s find themselves trapped in the wrong job. Some feel unfulfilled, while others feel that they are overeducated and that their talents are underutilised.

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, one in three graduates are overeducated for their current role. By 2030, things are expected to tip in the other direction: the rapidly changing work landscape might cause millions of UK workers to become underskilled in digital, decision-making, communication and leadership skills.

Why is it so hard to figure out what to do with your life?

Career decisions are a balancing act. You have to align your interests and aptitudes with the current demands of the labour market, neither of which are static entities.

Your skills and interests (and to some extent, even your personality) change over time, and the labour market is in a constant state of flux. The pandemic-related increases in vacancies in certain sectors and the potential effect of automation on the displacement of jobs in others are just two examples of labour market trends that you may need to consider.

Here are three ways to figure out what you want to do with your life.

1. Set a career goal

While many people conflate the terms “work” and “career”, I take care in my research to distinguish between them. While work refers to employment, career is something different. It is a continuing personal development project.

It begins not on the first day of a new job, but by setting career goals. These goals depend on your strengths and interests and, above all, on your values.

There are many ways to approach the task of goal-setting, either on your own or with the help of others. As a starting point, you could complete a career quiz (such as this fun one called Animal Me) or reflect on where you see yourself in five or ten years.

Consider what you most enjoy doing and what you excel at. What tasks and experiences do you find most fulfilling and rewarding?

If you don’t know your strengths or what you might enjoy doing, talk to others who know you well. Family members, friends and coworkers may be able to help you see yourself and what you bring to the table through their eyes.

2. Make a plan

The next step is to gather information on how you can achieve your vision, and set milestones along the way.

If you’re looking to change career direction, you would first need to find out if you need training, work experience or further education. You would then need to identify specific companies or institutions in your area that match the criteria you have set out in your plan.

If you’re after a more minor career adjustment, you might have fewer steps to go through. You could consider different roles that you are already qualified to do, or look through the job openings at your current company.

Goal-setting session. Yuri A/Shutterstock

If you feel stuck, you can get in touch with your local career service for free and impartial career information, advice and guidance. In the UK, these are the National Careers Service (England), Skills Development Scotland and Careers Wales.

And if you’re feeling bold, you could also contact people who are in your dream job and ask them how they got there.

3. Find decent and meaningful work

Until you figure out that dream role, you should try to look for what careers scholars such as David Blustein and Amartya Sen have described as decent and meaningful work.

Decent work upholds the basic principles of social justice and human rights. You will know that you are in a decent job when you are fairly compensated, your role is not precarious, and work does not make you chronically stressed or ill.

Meaningful work is aligned with your values and lets you achieve the kind of life that you value. Any work can be meaningful work, as long as it is compatible with what you consider to be important.

A meaningful job can be one that allows you to have a good work-life balance, or one that comes with high pay. It could be a job that helps others, or one that lets you express yourself creatively. It could also be a job that facilitates your personal growth or a job that contributes to the greater good.

Career planning takes time, but so does being stuck in the wrong job. British people spend an average of 3,507 days at work over their lives. Why not spend that time doing something you love?