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

It’s a seemingly innocuous question: “So, what do you do?”

It’s generally meant well, and asked by people who are genuinely interested in learning more about you – but if you’re unemployed this can be the question you dread most in casual conversation.

As a culture, we put a lot of emphasis on what people do (or don’t do) for a living, and when you’re unemployed it can be easy to fall into the trap of feeling “less than” simply because you’re not currently working.

As a person, you’re so much more than your job title – or lack thereof. Instead of letting this question get you down, use it. Here are some ideas to reframe your employment status, and turn the question “what do you do?” into a meaningful conversation.

Give a professional bio

It may be tempting to use every new meeting as a networking opportunity, but remember that you need to build up an actual relationship before straight out asking for a favor.

Instead of saying, “I’m looking for work, know of any?”, give your new contact a brief (brief!) professional bio, and let him or her know what type of work you’re currently looking for. If the two of you hit it off, your contact may volunteer leads without you having to ask.

Tell your new contact what field you worked in and the types of opportunities you’re looking to pursue right now. If you’re really not sure what your next step will be, say, “I’m exploring my options, but I’m really interested in a job that gets me outdoors/where I can be creative/in nonprofits.”

This could lead to a much more productive line of conversation, and maybe even spark some more ideas for you.

Put yourself in charge

Instead of launching into the whole sordid tale about company layoffs and how long you’ve been looking, say something along the lines of, “I’m taking some time to consider my next step.” Or, “I’m on sabbatical to consider a career change.”

After all, you may not have been in control when you lost your job, but you’re completely in control of what you’re doing with your life now. Reframing your situation as something you chose can help shake that feeling of disempowerment and frustration that sometimes comes with unemployment, and it might even impress your new contact with how proactive you are.

Answer with what you’re actually doing right now

One woman I met at a networking event told me that she was in the middle of an extended adult summer camp when I asked what she did. She was throwing out feelers for work, and planned to dive into the job search fully at the end of the summer, but at the time she was enjoying as many outdoors activities as she could. She was giving herself the vacation she never took at her last job.

Use this opportunity to showcase what you’re really passionate about. Maybe you’re taking your unexpected downtime to volunteer at a charity, or learn a new skill, or tackle a passion project. Just share your passions, and any awkwardness about your employment status will be washed away.

Deflect the question

If you really don’t want to talk about it, simply say “I’m transitioning right now,” or “I’m in between jobs,” and then change the topic by asking the other person about themselves. This sends a clear signal that you’re not interested in further questions, without bringing an air of desperation into the conversation.

Or, sidestep the issue of your employment with something like, “I’m in finance,” before changing the subject. This will let them happily believe you mean you’re employed in finance.

You could even inject a bit of humor into the conversation, by saying something like, “Well, that’s enough shop talk for now! Did you catch the game last night?”

Whatever your answer, stay focused on the positive. That’s what your conversation partner will remember about you – not what your employment status is.

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