Doing away with ‘what do you do?’

Jess Day
My social life and I have a complex relationship. This is only in part down to the ebbs and flows of my mental health. The rest is thanks to my dread of sitting down at the pub next to someone I haven’t seen in a while, or have never spoken to at length before, and hearing these four little words: ‘What do you do?’
Other variations include ‘what are you up to these days?’ and ‘are you still at [that job you took to earn some money during your gap year, six years ago]?’. I feel my heart sink, and it shows on my face. I wouldn’t say I’m ashamed of everything my life and career is and isn’t right now, and it’s not the fear of silent judgement that makes me clam up. It’s the opposite – it’s expectation. It’s who the person thinks I am versus what I have to show for it.
I find myself forcing a positive spin. Yes, my landlord is my mum, and she gives me hugely forgiving mates rates. Yes, I’m probably looking like less of a hot prospect to employers with every passing month. And yes, the novel I’ve been telling you about sits on my bedroom floor under a heap of plot notes, statements from student finance, and a Buffy boxset, because twenty-odd agents turned it down. But I’m not worried, I’ll tell you (even though sometimes I really, really am). I’ll start on about the new novel, the one I’m feeling even better about, and bulk it out with titbits of work opportunities on the horizon (mainly hypothetical).
In short, I find myself turning the conversation to how I do define myself, because my employment status is not it. And I may be an extreme example, but I can’t be the only twenty-something – or even thirty-something – who feels a chill when they hear the words ‘what do you do?’. We are, after all, the infamous millennials. Job security and full-time employment are foreign concepts to legions of us, a degree no longer guarantees a better career or higher income, and there is a high chance that when we compare ourselves to our parents at our age – with their family and their mortgage and a couple of promotions under their belts – we feel like embryos. Embryos with debt, and slowing metabolisms.
One of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of this juncture in life is that we are all finding success and carving out our places in the world at drastically different rates. I have friends who are forging careers in accounting and publishing and civil service, and I have friends on – *shivers* – zero-hour contracts, for whom ‘what do you do’ can only be answered with a host of disclaimers and footnotes. Either they’re tripping over each other to work for free in thankless, hyper-competitive fields like the media industries; they lack the funds for training or to set themselves up in business; or, perhaps worst of all, they plain don’t know where they’re headed.
And hey, it’s all good. If you fall into the latter camp, I hope you’re not agonising over where you’re at every minute of the day. Because you don’t need to. You can’t compare yourself to others, because you are incomparable, and as Mary Schmich and Baz Luhrmann say, don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. But if you’re anything like me, when you’re confronted with those words, that niggling desire to sell yourself as interesting and interested, aspirational and headed somewhere, is a big fat bummer.
But, I have a solution.
‘What do you do?’ is not the conversation opener for our generation. Its day is done. Let’s do away with it now and let those who love to talk about their careers – and power to you! I’m all ears – be the ones to bring it up. The rest of us can quietly feel better about ourselves. To aid in this process, below are some suggested alternatives:
  • ‘Tell me, in your own words, how you define yourself.’
  • ‘What’s been the highlight of your week so far?’
  •  ‘What’s the fattest thing you’ve ever done? Okay, I’ll go first.’ (proceed to tell them about the time you ate an entire tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food in one sitting, on a casual Tuesday afternoon, while your mother looked on, appalled)
  • ‘There’s a high chance our interaction is headed this way anyway, so I’m going to go right ahead and start playing you my favourite wiener dog videos.’
Feel free to add your own.

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