When you meet someone new for the first time, one of the first questions commonly asked is “what do you do for a living?”
It seems like an innocent enough conversation starter. Right up there along with a comment about the weather we’re having today.
But when you’re unemployed this type of question can hurt. A lot. Regardless if you were laid off from your job, quit, were fired, or have never worked before.
It can be an extremely difficult and embarrassing question to answer. Because you are currently not 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 rude and 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
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 they are really 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 the wrong 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 ahead of time to answer the question “what do you do for a living?” the next time someone asks.
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.
There is a very good chance that no matter who you talk to, they have been unemployed at some point in their lives, too.
How to Answer “What Do You Do For a Living?” When You’re Unemployed
There isn’t one right answer. How to best answer this question will, of course, depend on the situation you’re in.
A potential employer or hiring manager might ask this question or something related, such as “tell me about yourself” during the job interview process. Your answer to this question should be well prepared before the interview and should focus on the qualifications needed for the job, as well as your accomplishments.
At a networking event or when you are meeting someone new in another professional capacity, you still want to answer as professionally as possible, but it’s up to you how you answer it. For example, you can emphasize your strengths, career goals, or work experience instead.
When you are socializing and are being introduced to a friend’s friend or colleague, you can be more casual with your response. Talk about what you are passionate about, what motivates you, or give examples of what type of work interests you.
Regardless of your situation, here are some suggestions to help you answer these types of questions without feeling awkward or uneasy.
Honesty is the best policy. That being said, how honest and upfront you are is entirely up to you.
The direct approach would be to give a short answer and simply say “I’m not working right now.”
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 a red flag and 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 to be honest and not to risk it.
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 much 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” 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 and concise. 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 the 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 your answer.
Talk About Your Passions
If someone asks you “what do you do?” (without the “for a living” tacked onto the end), it is so easy to jump right in and talk about your passions instead of your work.
There’s probably a lot that you “do” but don’t make a living from between your hobbies, interests, and non-work-related life. So what do you like to do in your spare time?
It’s 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…”
Showing your enthusiasm by 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 ask questions and turn the focus back on them. By asking them what they do for a living, they might ramble on.
You could ask a follow-up open ended question or two, if you want to keep the conversation going.
Or ask thoughtful questions that will help change the topic away from talking about job related 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 nosy 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, move on. They aren’t someone worth your time anyways.
You are better off without them.
Admitting that you are currently unemployed can be intimidating. Especially when it comes to introducing ourselves to 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.
Be ready with an answer that makes you stand out, and it just might lead you to your next job interview or job offer.
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!
Amanda Kay, the founder of My Life, I Guess, provides valuable career advice and support for anyone striving to make a living and, more importantly, make a life. Whether it's navigating job searches, learning new skills, overcoming unemployment, or dealing with debt, My Life, I Guess has been a go-to resource for career guidance and financial stability since 2013. Amanda's expertise and relatable approach have been featured in trusted publications such as MSN, Credit.com, Yahoo! Finance, the Ladders and Fairygodboss.