The worst part of the job hunt is participating in multiple job interviews. They are stressful, causing perspiration that makes you the personification of the Hoover Dam and stuttering as if you were the real-life Elmer Fudd. Your heart races, your legs tremble, and your mind’s thought process vanishes.
Of course, there’s nothing more infuriating and frustrating than the questions or requests. The ‘so, tell us a little bit about yourself’ or the ‘what’s your biggest weakness?’ usually spring to the top of mind when listing the worst aspects of job interviews. When you really start to think about it, though, the hardest question to answer (which also happens to be one of the most common) is: ‘Where do you see yourself in five years?’.
There is a lot to unpack with this question.
First, it’s hard to foresee the future – if it were easy, then you would have invested in the futures market a long time ago or purchased Amazon.com stock in its infancy. Second, what if you’re applying for a remedial job, like that of a stockboy, server or cashier, that is meant to pay the bills? You don’t plan to be in this position for the rest of your days. Third, the answer you provide can risk you being overconfident or not confident enough.
That said, there is a 99% chance that the question will be asked. Let’s explore the question.
Why interviewers ask this question
There are two primary reasons why hiring managers pose this question to applicants.
The first is to find out if you are serious about the career you are embarking upon. If they see that you want to stick to this field, hone your skills and potentially advance within the company over 10 years’ time, then they would be far more willing to take a chance on you for this position than someone else who looks like he or she already has one eye on the door.
The second is to see how you answer this question. Since it is a difficult one to reply to – because you have to draw a fine line between being honest and what the hiring managers want to hear – the employer wants to discern how you respond. Is it with confidence or is it weak?
How to answer this question
Here are tips that can serve as great aids in coming up with the best answer to this question.
1. Be honest
Honesty is the best policy.
You don’t want to say the first thing that pops into your mind when the interviewer asks where you see yourself in 5, 10 or 20 years from now. But you also don’t want to spout clichés, fibs or absurd answers, either. (If you dare say, ‘Working here for you’, you owe us a drink!) This will definitely cause eyes to roll or cause the interviewer to think about what they’re having for dinner for Thanksgiving in six years – the signs of an interview gone wrong.
Indeed, you could talk about engaging with younger people in your field, enhancing your skills, becoming a leader in your area or managing a team of go-getters who want to change the market.
2. Highlight your broader goals
Are you going to be the chief executive officer of the company in 20 years’ time? Unlikely.
When you engage with the hiring manager, you should list your broader but realistic goals. It would be prudent to discuss where the position will take you and then how that aligns with your overall professional objectives. You’re not making promises to commit to the firm, but you’re also not dismissing it from your short- and long-term future, either.
3. Show your desire to work at the company
Is this company the one you always wanted to work for? Or is it a firm that offers a competitive salary with plenty of perks and benefits? Whatever the case might be, you should certainly showcase your desire to work at the company for the foreseeable future by noting how you wish to be part of a management team that aims to increase market share by 6% in the next 10 years – they’ll just know you’re talking about them!
4. Show your willingness to improve
Your career will never advance if you don’t keep learning. Just because you attained a four-year college degree and attended a couple of night courses, it doesn’t mean you’re finished improving your human capital. In fact, if you wish to succeed in your field, then you will be aiming to always obtain new information and studying new trends and tools to help your career.
How and where depends on you, but by explaining this to the interviewer, you portray yourself as someone who doesn’t want to stagnate.
5. Be enthusiastic
Only you can get a thrill down your leg perusing central bank balance sheets. Only you can lose sleep at night because you’re excited to begin working on a new coding project.
While it can be difficult to be enthusiastic about the future, you should still be eager for what the future brings to your industry. Again, your long-term plans may not be with this private enterprise, but if you’re putting your jubilance on display about digital marketing, emerging markets or artificial intelligence, then the company will certainly hire you for your enthusiasm – as long as you have the skills to back it up.
If you’re spending your time talking about the possibilities in your sector, and the interviewer is listening, then this is a good sign that this business might be integral to your five-year career plan.
Are you still unsure how to answer this question? The sample answers below can be utilised as a template for crafting your own answers based on your experience, education, skills and desires. Remember: you shouldn’t copy these answers word-for-word; rather, they should be used as a guide.
- ‘Life is never certain. Unless you have a crystal ball and a magical genie, not everything can turn out as you plan. But I believe that with enough hard work, a strong will to learn and desire to grow, I can make an important contribution and even impact in the next five years. Then, hopefully, five years after that, I can pass on any wisdom I’ve attained to the youngins’.
- ‘What I want and what is reality might be two different things. I want to be the chief financial officer before I turn 35, but that might not happen. But I can still think like one because that’s the only way to reaching your accomplishments: thinking big! That’s what I do: think big’.
- ‘Where am I going to be in five years? Hopefully better than I am now. I know this industry is constantly evolving, and there is a lot to learn. Something new has been invented, introduced or innovated in the last second, and it’ll probably be integral to your company. It’s my job to fully understand it and somehow ensure it can help you and others grow’.
Mistakes to avoid
As you attempt to answer this common question, be sure you avoid these mistakes.
1. Being unsure how to answer the question
Picture this scenario: the interviewer asks you where you see yourself in a few years’ time. Stumped, you cross your legs, fold your arms, peer to the heavens and shrug. You start spouting a word salad, a confused mix of random words and phrases, which conveys that you haven’t the slightest clue. This is why preparation for every job interview is paramount.
2. Refusing to look to the future
Ever since you were a child, you never could answer the age-old question, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ The reason? You didn’t know. Well, fast-forward to your 20s, 30s or even 40s, and you still haven’t figured out what your future looks like, except that it involves plenty of fast food and Netflix binge-watching. You might not be able to prognosticate 10 years from now to the business, but you could at least give five years a shot. Any plan to mention to the interviewer is better than nothing.
3. Being lackadaisical
Meh. If this is your attitude, then don’t waste yours or the company’s time.
Indifference is the bane to any career. If this is obvious in your answer or body language, then the interviewer will be less inclined to calling you back for a second interview or giving you a job opportunity. They say that apathy killed the cat – or was that curiosity? Either way, it rings true.
Considering that robots are about to take over the world, it is a terrifying prospect to think about the future. Do you really want to see yourself in five years or a decade? Not only are you going to get a bigger belly and your outlook on life will be grimmer, your career might be stagnating, and your bank account may be refusing to grow. That said, the only way to experience doing what you love, or at least earning a bigger paycheque, is to establish a five-year career plan.
Even if an interviewer doesn’t ask this question, it should still be up to you to answer it.
Do you have anything you’d like to add? Were you ever asked this question in an interview, and how successful was your response? Join the conversation down below and let us know.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 25 April 2014.