According to a survey of 1,000 children in 2017, more than three quarters of children aged 6 to 17 aspired to be YouTubers, vloggers and bloggers. The research by travel firm First Choice revealed that 34 per cent of children would like to be a YouTube personality, while one in five wished to start their own channel.  Traditional career choices, such as teaching, were much less popular three years ago. The research also revealed that children would rather learn how to use video editing software instead of studying traditional subjects such as maths and history.

From an evolutionary point of view, it is no surprise that YouTube stars have become celebrities to young audiences and the contents produced by these stars are fervently consumed and have a powerful hold over them. This will be a familiar battleground to many parents pushing back against the pull of these influencers, even testing the boundaries of millennial parents who themselves have grown up in the digital age.

According to new research by Kids Insights[1], there appears, however, to have been a seismic shift in children’s occupational aspirations over the past few months with scientists, teachers, supermarket workers, doctors and nurses now the new superheroes of the COVID-19 generation. A return to the type of role modelling that is perhaps about to once again change the dynamics of career aspirations and educational priorities? Perhaps.

The first observation needs to be that this is nothing new. Role models come into young people’s lives in a variety of ways. They are educators, leaders, mothers, fathers, peers and ordinary people encountered in everyday life. In my case they ranged from Robin Hood, his bravery and sense of fairness, to Johan Cruijff’s turn and ability to orchestrate a team, to wanting to be able to speak like Dr Martin Luther King, be a doctor like Christiaan Barnard, teach like Mr Beurskens, and actually be my grandad. I was ten. There are, I believe, at least five criteria required to elevate a person or profession to role model status in the eyes of a child.

  1. Role models demonstrate passion for what they do and have the capacity to infect others with it. They are often good at what they do.
  2. Role models shows a clear set of values and live them in their world. They lead by example. Children admire people who act in ways that support their beliefs. It helps them understand how their own values are part of who they are and how they might seek fulfilling roles as adults. Role models make good things happen.
  3. A role model shows commitment to community. They are others-focused as opposed to self-focused and are usually (pro)active in their communities, freely giving of their time and talents to benefit people.
  4. Role models shows selflessness and acceptance of others who are different to them. They are fair.
  5. A role model shows the ability to overcome obstacles. Young people develop the skills and abilities of initiative when they learned to overcome obstacles.  Not surprisingly, they admire people who show them that success is possible.

Of course, the reign of the YouTuber or vlogger per se was always going to be flawed as a framework of aspirational longevity, like so many others in the past.  Despite YouTube celebrities being influential in shaping trends and guiding pop culture, not all by any means really fit the role modelling matrix in the first place, showing young people how to live with integrity, optimism, hope, determination, and compassion; in turn, helping develop the skills, abilities, and motivation to become engaged citizens. Like so many in the past. I was lucky. I choose well. Robin Hood, Johan Cruijff, Dr Martin Luther King and Christiaan Barnard all passed the test of time, as did, of course, Mr Beurskens and my grandad – for me anyway.

My mantra has always been that “Children can only aspire to what they know exists” and over the past few months, they have not only witnessed the existence but have vicariously experienced the value of rewarding jobs and careers. It is vitally important that we, now more than ever, continue to inspire and educate our global citizens of the future. This, as adults, surely is our role to play! We need to facilitate the experiences that lead to the discovery of positive role models and from that to role play, i.e. copied behaviour. We need to show the environment is the third teacher, including the environment of imagination, aspiration and role models – a modern day Sherwood Forrest, De Meer stadium, De Groote Schuur hospital and a new Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. Only then do these experiences and does this learning become visible.

Should we not now collectively draw up a list of experiences, with school, offline as well as online, that we believe our children are entitled to by, let’s say, age 7 – and then again at 11, 14, 16? Museums, galleries, restaurants, ballet, sports, concerts, teamwork, performing, receiving an award, places of work and government, visiting their capital cities, social media, YouTube, Sir David Attenborough in the Galapagos Islands … It is our collective duty to twitch curtains, open windows and doors, and widen horizons to a better possible, for all children to write their own narrative of their possible. We do this through leading by example, role modelling, through early opportunities and through facilitating experiences. And when we do this, we find ourselves in a world where not every classroom has four walls, where the environment becomes a teacher. To all involved, the value of the connection between being taught in school and experiences out there will soon become very clear – believe me. It is these experiences that will lead to bigger dreams, greater aspirations and better role models. “If you have a strong purpose in life, you don’t have to be pushed. Your passion will drive you there”[2].

It is an unfair and sad reality, that, for many disadvantaged children in particular, who have experienced positive shifts in their perceptions of role models and aspirations for the future, this has been offset by disruptions to schooling and education in a wider sense, despite hugely admirable efforts by the teaching professions. Children whose context is one of disadvantage have had little or no access to online connectivity, something that needs to be laid fairly and squarely at the doors of governments and societies as a whole. For those children there has been no “The [online] environment is the third teacher”[3].

The landscape of education is, and has been, changing with educationalists recognising that personal development and achievement are at least as as important as academic attainment and that children need a robust set of core skills for the future world of both employment and self-deployment, including leadership, collaboration, independence, initiative, creativity, communication, perseverance, resilience and flexibility[4].  It is now up to us to step up to the mark. If we want our children to be truly successful in life, to answer the question “Who do you want to become?” instead of “What do you want to be?”, then we need to play our part and in this case we need to accept and advocate that “Every child is everybody’s responsibility”[5]. “Becoming Me”[6] is a journey full of awe and wonder and the role we play is vital.

[1] https://kidsinsights.com/ac/

[2] Roy T. Bennet

[3] Carla Rinaldi

[4] e.g. Bett’s Global Council for Education (GEC) and its ‘Manifesto for the Future of Education’

[5] Vanessa Langley

[6] The Week Junior in partnership with Prof Dr Ger Graus OBE