How to Answer “What Do You Do” When Unemployed

“What do you do for a living?” is among the first questions people ask when introduced socially. When I was unemployed this question made me feel exposed and uncomfortable. Sometimes my self-consciousness made me want to stay home, but I’m glad I challenged myself not to.  

You don’t have to turn down social engagements because you don’t have a job. With the right attitude and a little preparation you can continue to embrace your social life, garnering support and meeting new friends during this important time of transition.

Life changes perpetually, and the wherewithal you muster during times of transition helps you develop versatility, empathy, resilience and grit. These skills will serve you well, and acquiring them through the rigors of  unemployment is a great way to internalize them.

Your professional hiatus is an opportunity for personal growth.

You Define You

Being unemployed and in the midst of a job search is nothing to be ashamed of; most people have experienced a snap of unemployment at some point. So don’t feel singled out. Make peace with your situation and don’t think that you have to apologize for it or provide a detailed or lengthy explanation to new people you are meeting socially.  

You don’t need casual acquaintances to validate you, so don’t outsource your sense of self. Your perspective matters more to you than theirs, and you get to control how you see yourself.

Remember why you are coming to this social engagement. You are looking for new friends to connect with because that is truly affirming and validating. You are not looking to be weighed for your worth, so don’t lead with your vulnerability.

Arrive Prepared  

Comprise an elevator pitch that captures the basics of your job situation and search. You want your communication on this important topic to be planned, purposeful and brief. This gets you over the hump that employment questions present in a polished and unemotional way. Then you get the chance to ask other people about what they do, which is especially interesting when you are a job seeker.  

If you discover that someone you are chatting with might be a good professional contact, initiate a future plan. Perhaps see if you might meet for coffee or connect via social media. While you definitely want to pursue any leads you find, you also want to stick to your goals for the event and keep it light and social.   

To that end, give some thought to fun topics you would like to discuss–a great book you read, a movie you saw, music you love or funny stories about your life. During this transitional time you may have to put some extra effort into preparing for social situations, but that’s OK. Set yourself up for success. Having this go well will give you a beneficial esteem boost.


Your coolness, relevance and relatability exist independently of your professional life, so don’t beat yourself up because you are unemployed. Your life doesn’t stop because one aspect of it is in a transitional phase. Change is good and healthy.

The poise and composure that you exhibit during this time matters more than what some random person might think. Don’t go out with the goal of trying to impress someone else; aim to impress yourself.