“What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a question commonly asked by adults of children. I’ve seen my seven-year-old son answer this question with train driver - when he was three and really into Thomas the Tank Engine. Then he wanted to be a paleontologist when he was five and really into dinosaurs, and now, randomly, he says he wants to be a “quantum physicist or an electrician, because I like electricity”. Give it a few more years and I’m pretty sure his answer will be something else altogether.
It’s also the question asked of the seven-year-olds who initially participated in the British documentary series, 7 Up. The series was inspired by the Jesuit saying: ‘Give me the child until he is seven and I will show you the man.’ Something about being seven years old, when you’re no longer a young child, and not quite an older one, is quite special. I can see it in my son, as he stands on the cusp of becoming a tween and then a teenager. He is no longer my little boy and yet isn’t old enough to act like he doesn’t need his mum. He still needs hugs, will run to me when he is hurt, but he is also starting to develop interests all of his own - like quantum physics, which I don’t know the first thing about.
Something about being seven years old, when you’re no longer a young child, and not quite an older one, is quite special.
In the first episode of the 7 Up series, 14 children from around the UK were gathered together and made to talk about their lives. There came from farms and orphanages, working class government housing, as well as upper class homes. Initially there were no plans to follow up on how these children got on, but after the success of 7 Up, it was decided by director Michael Apted, (who went on to direct Bond and Oscar winning films) to follow up on how the children were getting on with their lives every seven years. While one participant has dropped out altogether, most of the others have dropped in and out of the series, the latest instalment of which, 63 Up, will be shown on SBS in June.
So did they live up to the hopes they held as seven-year-olds? In 1964, in the original episode of the series, a chatty Neil Hughes, aged 7, declared that when he grew up he wanted to be an astronaut. Life, as it often tends to do, had other plans. In 28 Up, we discover Neil is homeless and in a bad mental state. However, thanks to the help of another participant in the series, Neil is able to get his life back together and in 42 Up we find him standing for election as a local Councillor in an area of London. Lynn Johnson, another participant has ambitions of working at Woolworths as a seven-year-old. She goes on to work as librarian for 30 years. Unfortunately, Lynn passed away in 2013.
There are some whose lives go pretty much according to plan. Jackie Bassett, a working class girl from London’s East End told The Guardian “I've turned out pretty much as expected.” While Bruce Bladen who said he wanted to become a missionary at the age of seven, achieves his dream of sorts by going to teach underprivileged children in Bangladesh in 35 Up.
In the first episode of the 7 Up series, 14 children from around the UK were gathered together and made to talk about their lives.
But ultimately perhaps it doesn’t matter where the participants end up. Rather it is their journey that has captured audiences from around the world for all these years. While the series proves that those from privileged backgrounds will do better in life than those who aren’t, every single one of them has had losses and heartbreaks, as well as wins and jubilation along the way.
So when it comes to my own seven-year-old, it doesn’t matter if he wants to make it his life’s work to hunt for dinosaur bones or conduct physics experiments, he may well in fact have multiple careers over his life. What does matter is that he has hope, much like all seven-year-olds, and belief that the world is open to him and he can be anything he wants to be. Even though where he thinks he wants to be may not be where he ends up.
Watch 28 UP on SBS Viceland on Sunday August 25 at 4:15pm. Catch up on all the previous installments at SBS On Demand: