How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed

How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed - My Life, I Guess
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When you meet someone new for the first time, one of the first questions asked is “what do you do for a living?”

It seems like an innocent enough question to start a conversation with. Right up there along with a comment about the weather we’re having today.

But when you’re unemployed this question can hurt. A lot.

It can be an extremely difficult and embarrassing question to answer. Because you are currently not “doing” anything. You aren’t making a living.

Do you be upfront and say that?

What will people assume about you if you do?

Will the other person be sympathetic, or will they be judgmental?

Our Identity is Linked to Our Work

So much of our identity is linked to our work and career paths.

It can be hard to separate the two, especially in cultures where we put so much emphasis and value on status and success.

Chances are good that when you meet someone new, you introduce yourself by telling them your name and what you do for a living.

“Hi, I’m Jane and I am a financial analyst.”

That one simple sentence can tell you a lot about a person. Or at least it implies a lot about them. Things like their values, their intelligence, and their interests.

From this introduction, you probably automatically assume a lot about Jane. She is probably smart. She probably went to university and majored in business or finance, and might even have a masters degree, too. She’s probably good with numbers. And she probably makes good money and lives a comfortable life.

“Hi, I’m John and unemployed.”

It just doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?

And the connotations of being unemployed aren’t nearly as favourable.

Instead, you might be thinking what’s up with John? Why can’t he find a job? Is he educated? Lazy? Picky? Does he just sit at home all day watching tv? What the hell, John?!

It’s important to remember – your identity is not the same thing as your job title.

“Many people are much more complex than what’s listed on their business card.” – The Everygirl

First Impressions Count

Whether it’s intentional or not, there’s a lot of snap judgment happening when you first meet someone.

Your first impression usually tells people in a matter of seconds if they are interested in getting to know you better or not.

Which makes “what do you do for a living?” an intimidating question to answer. Even for people that are employed.

Because there really is a lot behind the question, isn’t there?

In an indirect way, it’s like asking how much money do you make? What’s your social status? Are you more “important” than I am?

Some people ask because they genuinely want to get to know you or are simply trying to start a conversation. They aren’t trying to judge you or compare themselves to you.

But of course, some people are doing exactly that.

Either way, you want to give a good answer. Something that will make others excited to keep talking to you. Something that shows a little bit about who you are in a positive and credible way.

If you give a bad answer you may feel judged. Maybe even ashamed.

If you are unemployed, you already have enough on your mind. Trying to impress casual acquaintances is not a priority. (Unless they are someone that can be a professional contact or connection for you.)

Thankfully, you don’t have to go out of our way to avoid these social interactions just to avoid any judgment or added stress.

You just need to be prepared to answer the question “what do you do for a living?”

You Are Not Alone

Before I jump in, I know all too well that being unemployed can leave you feeling incredibly alone.

But trust me, you are not!

There are literally millions of other people that are unemployed right now.

As of April 2019, there were over 5.8 million people unemployed in the US, and there were 1.16 million unemployed people in Canada in 2018.  

There is a very good chance that no matter who you talk to, they have been unemployed at some point in their lives, too.

Especially those of us that were (and perhaps still are) impacted by the recession of 2007-2009.  

How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed

How to best answer this question will, of course, depend on the situation you’re in.

If you are at a networking event or meeting someone in another professional capacity, you will want to answer as professionally as possible.

However, if you are out socializing and are being introduced to your friend’s friends, you can be more casual with your response.

Regardless, here are some suggestions to help you answer this question you may be dreading.

Be Honest

Honesty is the best policy. That being said, how honest and upfront you are is entirely up to you.

You don’t have to give excuses or explain yourself.

Especially if you quit or were fired under circumstances that you’re not comfortable sharing, or may be in your best interest not to share.

Or if you’re not working due to medical reasons and don’t want to get too personal.  

If you were laid off, people are generally more understanding and sympathetic. But it can still be humbling to admit or talk about.

The important thing is that you don’t lie about it. You never know if that lie will come back to bite you down the road, so it’s best not to risk it.

Stay Positive

Staying positive while unemployed is a challenge in itself. Trying to convey that positivity when meeting new people isn’t any easier.

It can be so easy to go on and on about how you ended up without a job. How long you’ve been looking. How difficult it all is.

No one expects you to be happy about being unemployed. (Unless you actually are?)

But you will be better off if you can find a positive way to look at it and talk about it.

Rather than saying you’re unemployed, why not say you are “between jobs”, in a “transitional phase” or are taking time off for a “career break”, like The $76k Project does instead?

It still tells people that you don’t have a job at the moment, but it almost sounds like it’s intentional. Or that you see your situation as a temporary opportunity to explore other options.  

Keep Things General

A good, professional approach to answering this question is to keep things general. You can still be honest, but don’t have to get into the specifics this way.

For example, try phrasing your answer “Most recently, I was…” and then mention your previous role or the company you last worked for.

Or try something like “I have worked … years in the … industry.

In both cases, you are being honest and answering their question. It’s likely enough information about yourself to satisfy the other person’s curiosity, as it still tells them a bit about you. You’re simply not drawing attention to the fact that you are not currently working in that role.  

Talk About Your Passions

You probably “do” a lot of things between your hobbies, interests, and non-work-related life.

But you probably don’t make a living from these things.

If someone asks you “what do you do?” (without the “for a living” tacked onto the end), it is so easy to jump right into talking about your passions instead of your work.

But it’s also pretty easy for you to steer the conversation in that direction, even if they do specify “for a living”.  

A simple, “In my spare time, I like to…” is probably sufficient to do the trick.

You could be direct and say something like “Let’s not talk about work. What I really want to talk about is…

Or better yet, say “I’m still trying to figure things out, but my dream job would be…

Talking about something that excites you is a great way to dodge any judgment, and helps people see you in a more positive light.

And in most cases, your passions say a lot more about who you are as a person, anyway.

Turn the Focus Away From Yourself

People love to talk about themselves.

So if you don’t want to talk about yourself and what you “do” (or don’t do), why not turn the focus back onto the person you’re talking to instead?

Give whatever brief answer you decide to use, then immediately turn the question back on them. Ask them what they do for a living. And then ask follow-up open-ended questions, if you want to keep the conversation going.

Or ask questions that will help change the topic away from talking about work stuff.

Doing so may help you feel comfortable sharing more about yourself.  

You never know what similarities or connections you may have.

Don’t Expect the Worst

A big reason you’re not feeling confident about telling people you’re unemployed is because you’re anticipating a negative response from them.

And unfortunately, it will happen. Some people are just jerks like that.

But most people will be understanding and respectful. Maybe even compassionate.

Who knows, they may even be able to help you with your job search.

Because don’t forget – almost everyone has been unemployed at one point in their lives.

And if someone does judge you harshly, they aren’t someone worth your time anyways.

You are better off without them.

In Conclusion

Admitting that you are currently unemployed can be intimidating. Especially when you are meeting someone new. It can leave you feeling exposed and self-conscious.

It’s a similar experience for anyone that’s underemployed, working survival jobs instead of pursuing a career path.

Your career or lack of a career is not your identity. It does not determine your worth as a person.

Even though it can certainly feel like it does.

You want people to remember YOU and who you are, not what your current job status or job title is.

Keep in mind that most people ask “what do you do for a living?” because they are trying to get to know you better. It’s just small talk. Not an attack.

And it just might lead you to your next opportunity.

YOUR TURN: How do you usually answer the question “what do you do for a living”?

Are there any tips or suggestions that I missed?

Please leave a comment below letting us know!

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Trying to answer the question “what do you do for a living?” when you\'re unemployed can be hard. Here are some suggestions to help you best answer this dreaded question in an honest and positive way.  How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed - My Life, I Guess  #unemployed #career #careeradvice #unemployment #whatdoyoudo #betweenjobs #nojob
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Amanda is the owner and creator of My Life, I Guess... a personal finance and lifestyle blog that started back in 2013. She strives to keep the "person" in personal finance by writing about money, mistakes and making the most of it.


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3 thoughts on “How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed

  1. Leigh

    Thank you for this post! I usually would try to talk about how I was taking some time off from my career as a X to take some space before sorting out what I wanted to do next. But so many people would preemptively assume that I was a stay at home wife and was having troubles getting pregnant because I was married and not working. That drove me bonkers! I hated how much I felt I needed to quantify that I had previously worked in X field for ten years and was taking a break. People generally told me that it was awesome I was taking that time for myself while other people would get really negative that they can’t do that. Now, I’m on a new career path, so that’s a bit easier, but now I have to regularly answer what caused me to change careers!


  2. cece

    I think I’m not working right now. PERIOD. would work too if you want to move the conversation along without explanation.


  3. Reny

    Thank you for the article. It”s very annoying and stressful for me to be asked by people about my job in the first 15 seconds. And they become very aggresive and insist on this subject , even when I try to change the topic of our discussion. Sometimes , when I greeting someone , then don”t greeting back and ask open questions: “What do you do for a living ?” or ” Are you going to work ?” or ” Don’t you are at work at this time? ” .


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