I strongly dislike the question, what do you do for a living? because I think it’s used as small talk filler, when we are really trying to ask a stranger, “who are you?” How do you spend your time? What do you love? Tell me a bit about yourself?” At times, it may be relevant to ask someone about their career, but I find it’s rarely relevant, or actually what I want to share at the start of a conversation.
The question what do you do for a living? Gets all kinds of personal right away—but not necessarily in a deep, getting to know you way. For millennials like myself, there may be a big difference between how we pay our bills, versus educational background, and career aspirations. Not to mention the layers of discrimination that folks may experience in the job market: ageism, ableism, sexism, unfortunately that list goes on and on.
In my 11 years in the workforce I’ve done all kinds of jobs: lifeguard, fruit farms, childcare, research, teaching assistant, learning assistant, event planning etc. As millennials are expected to have more and more jobs throughout their lifetime, listing what job I currently hold may mean even less about who I am as a person. I’ve often held 2 part-times jobs, because that was the only option available. In addition to education, my generation is often expected to do unpaid internships. So when you ask me what I do, I can’t give a one word answer: “lawyer, teacher” etc.
If I’m overqualified for my present job, do I tell the stranger, I’m doing x, but actually I have a Master’s Degree? While being careful to acknowledge the importance of the work I’m doing. Or I’m doing x, but only for another few weeks, because my world is increasingly contract based. Sometimes when someone asks me what I do, my cynical side comes. What do they really want to know? How much I make? How smart am I? How educated I am? If I’m “lazy”? What kind of “citizen” I am? If I have any free time, or too much free time by their judgment? If I’m interesting?
Another reason I find this what do you do question so uncomfortable is because it invites invasive questions about how someone survives if they aren’t “working.” There are many reasons someone may not be working, and yet this isn’t a discussion that they’d necessarily invite with a stranger. Maybe they are a full time care-giver, working long hours at home to care for children, or sick parents, children or partners (This often gendered labour doesn’t translate into a formal job in the economy). Maybe they are unable to find work and are supported through social assistance. Maybe they have a visible or invisible disability, and are supported through social assistance, and again don’t feel like having that conversation with you. Or maybe they are okay with this conversation, but that’s individualized.
This summer, I’m between jobs. I had two contracts at non-profits end recently, and I’m carefully living from my savings as I take care of my health, and organize my writing. So when people ask me what I do, the short answer is well, I don’t have a job right now—if that’s really what you are asking. Yet that answer still doesn’t feel right, especially when it’s followed by unwanted advice about how to improve my chances of getting a job. I’ve spent over 2 years looking for permanent work, and talking about job searching at a party, or with an acquaintance is likely the last thing I want to chat about.
I could just tell you inquiring stranger, that I’m a writer and a daydreamer. Yet my writing has yet to intersect with my capitalist identity, with my SIN #, and at the end of the day, this is a conversation about capitalism, is it not? In certain spaces, with certain crowds of daydreamers, I will call myself a writer, no questions asked about the pragmatic continuation of my existence that relies on capitalism.
The truth is I love talking to new people, I just don’t think asking what I do (or vice versa) may lead to the connection sought. Don’t mistake what I do to get by (which often changes) and who I am. As a contract worker, jobs come and go, and I’m careful not to let them define me, as in “I was something, and now I don’t have a job, so I’m not the thing.” I understand that for some folks, their work may be more permanent, and more in tune with their vision of who they are, but not for everyone.
When you want to ask someone what they do, maybe find a way to ask about their hopes, dreams, and passions instead? I’d much rather answer the question what do you love, over what do I do. Even when/ if I have a more permanent job, that matches my passion, I am and always will be a friend, community member, artists, etc. before I am a “worker.” If the quickest way to get to know me is by starting a conversation about my relationship to capitalism, how about we start this dialogue again?