“What Do You Do?”

Hello Boomers,

How do you feel about the question after you’ve lost your job or have retired?    You know the one.  It’s the one we’ve heard all of our adult lives.  It’s the one we may now dread hearing.   “What do you do?”

We’ve all heard the question and we’ve all asked it.  It was often the very first order of business when meeting someone new.  That’s a flaw, perhaps a uniquely Boomer flaw as we competed in a marketplace drowning with other Boomers all vying for jobs, for promotions, for power, control, and prestige.  All too often it was how we measured others.   We knew it was wrong but we couldn’t help ourselves.  It’s true. You know it. You have felt it. You have lived it. 

For many Boomers the question “What do you do?” has now become feared.  How can we measure up if our answers have become less than interesting?  How does it make us feel when we must say that we are still unemployed, that we are still looking after many months, that no one seems to want us?  How will it make us feel to have to admit that we are “temporarily” working a job that lets us put food on the table but doesn’t make good use of our education, of our experience, of our skills, of our minds?  

How will we feel if we must admit that we have suddenly retired long before we wanted, long before we were ready, long before we could safely begin drawing upon our retirement funds, or worse, long before adequate funds were even saved?  How will it make us feel when we believe others are judging us by what we are doing, or aren’t doing now?

Since so much of our self-worth has been wrapped up in what we did, in our titles, in our salaries, how do we continue to feel secure, to have a sense of self-worth when those things that once defined us are suddenly gone? 

Some would say that these feelings are “so Boomer”.  And they could be right.  After all, we grew up thinking that if you worked hard, if you studied hard, and if you were loyal, good things would happen when it was your turn.  

So we worked hard.  We worked so hard that our work ethic is legendary.  People joke that the only way a Boomer leaves the office is on a gurney during a heart attack.  Younger employees worry that Boomers will work too long and stifle their opportunities.  No one thinks Boomers don’t work hard. 

We studied hard.  Our generation knew that college was important.   For some it meant staying out of Vietnam.  But for all it meant that you had risen above others, that you were smarter, more focused, more likely to succeed, more malleable, more employable.  A degree made you special because not everyone had one.  

We were loyal.  Oh boy, were we loyal.  We stayed with our employers in our jobs at our companies for so long that our job search skills became rusty.  Our resumes often weren’t updated for years.  Our networks had holes in them that a 747 couldn’t fill.  But we didn’t notice because we didn’t need those things.  We waited and prepared and when it was our turn we were ready and gladly took the reins.  We were riding high.  

We rode that wave for a long time.  We advanced in our careers.  We were valued employees and our wages grew along with our responsibilities.  We were promoted again and again into positions that wielded power and authority over people and processes.  We were the experts and the backbone of every company and we loved it. 

We knew it would all end someday but we thought it would be on our terms when we were ready.  Then a funny thing happened.  For all too many of us it just ended.  It felt sudden.  It felt pervasive.  For most, it was completely unexpected.  

Seemingly all at once, in businesses large and small all across the nation, in every type of enterprise, nearly everyone had somehow unanimously decided that we were too old, too expensive, too hard to train, too set in our ways, too easily expendable.  

Now there are millions of Boomers on the outside looking in.  Along with others impacted by our sour economy, we search for jobs and struggle with financial woes.  But unemployed Boomers worry about something else too.  They wonder if they will ever work again.  They are embarrassed that they cannot find a job.  They are ashamed to still be collecting unemployment as the months, or years drag on and their prospects grow dimmer.    

So now we fear the question, “What do you do?” because it is harder to answer than we ever thought it would be.  Perhaps it’s harder to answer than it should be.  We Boomers have judged ourselves and others by our titles and our pay for far too long.  Our self-esteem was wrapped up in our careers which were the barometers that we used to measure our contributions to society, and to judge our worth to our families, to our organizations, to ourselves.  We define success by what we do, or by what we did for a living.  We know it’s wrong.  We know we shouldn’t.  But we can’t help it.  And that’s so Boomer.


2 Responses to ““What Do You Do?””

  1. LoveBeingRetired Says:

    You hit on so many valid points. Defining ourselves by the work we do leaves us at a disadvantage whether we retire voluntarily or are forced out with a job loss or health. If we stop for a moment and really think about it, how would we define ourselves without work in the equation? Each of us has many talents and passions and wonderful characteristics, it is a shame that no work is often equated with no life. I believe that you cannot give up and wait for something to come your way. After six months of full time chasing the next gig, you need to start doing something, anything to keep your mind active and engaged as well as have something to explain your time out when you do get an interview. This “something” could be taking classes, writing a book or article, starting a blog and learning all about social media – all of these add to the total person you are. I am looking for my next job – when people ask what I do, I say I am in semi-retirement, trying it out. But I am not sitting still and waiting – I am keeping busy and adding to my skill set and actually pursuing something that I am passionate about. Not too bad a practice retirement…

    • shellyscriba Says:


      We all need to recognize the “new normal”. That may mean re-inventing ourselves a time or two, or three. It is very wise to stay busy while looking. As the months drag on, we all need a compelling story to “fill the gap”. Be that taking a class, building and running a website, blogging, writing and publishing articles, writing a book, starting a business, consulting, getting a certificate, whatever it is, it is better than sitting on the couch rusting away. And it will show a future employer or banker that you are not content to sit idle while life passes you by, that you are open to learning, to expanding, to growing. Great way to get hired or to get that small business loan down the road. Great perspective. Thanks for weighing in.

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