There it is again—that dreaded, discomforting question you get asked when you meet someone new in a social setting (when we can get back to being social again, that is!):

“Nice to meet you. So, what do you do?”

Although people tend to ask this question less of older folks, you will hear it after you retire. In fact, the question is so pervasive that it ranked #28 on the “101 Characteristics of Americans/American Culture” list compiled by the University of Michigan to help people from other cultures understand how to interact with us.

So, how do you respond?

You give your old job title

 You could be like many of Retirement Voices questionnaire respondents and reply with your previous job title, as in “I used to be a corporate lawyer” or “I’m a retired teacher.” However, that doesn’t say much. Used to be? Was a teacher? Aren’t you anything now?

It’s natural for us to still identify with our former careers. We spend more time in our work roles than we do in just about any other role we take on in our lifetimes. So much of our focus and energy are directed toward work, it can rock our sense of self and purpose when work ends. So, we answer by describing the work we used to do.

But it seems to me that giving your old job title minimizes who you are now. It’s probably a product of not thinking through (or maybe not yet knowing) who you want to be now that you’re retired. If this is your first response to “What do you do?”, I suggest that there’s some work ahead of you to better define—and describe—the present-day you.

You respond lightheartedly

Many of our respondents offer lighthearted, generalized responses such as, “I do whatever I want” or “I do as little as possible.” This can come across in ways that suggest you don’t really want to have this conversation, that you’re being cute or flip or dismissive, or that you believe you aren’t doing anything worthwhile.

As a result, like giving your old job title, this response may not present you in the best light. There’s a missed opportunity here to say something more meaningful about yourself and maybe even start up a genuine and interesting conversation.

You list your current activities

Some women respond to “What do you do?” by listing all their current activities. One retired social worker from Warwick, RI, said, “If asked, I say I volunteer, I read, I’m political, I go to marches and rallies, I explore my world, I keep busy with my family and friends and community and hobbies.”

By focusing on what you’re currently doing, this response provides an opportunity to discover commonalities or shared interests. And at the very least, it begins to say something about you now. But it addresses what keeps you busy, not necessarily who you are.

If you choose this approach, be selective. Reciting a litany of activities that reads like your to-do list may be more than someone wants to know. Don’t give your questioner the “fire hose” response when all they wanted was a little taste.

You have trouble responding

Some women admit that they feel defensive or “less than” when asked what they do in retirement. A few told us that, even years after they’ve stepped away from their careers, they still catch themselves responding with, “Well, I used to work for…” This becomes more meaningless the further you are away from your old work life.

Rather than being caught unawares, expect the “What do you do?” question and give some thought to how you want to respond.

Craft an elevator speech

Just as we honed responses to “What do you do?” when we were part of the professional world (often called elevator speeches), why not craft a response to this question for retirement?

In the early months of retirement, we may be focused on de-stressing, catching up on sleep, reacquainting ourselves with friends and family and tackling projects that have been on our to-do list too long. We often don’t know yet what we want to do in our retirement or who we want to be. So, we’re uncomfortable when asked “What do you do?”

That’s okay and to be expected. But to avoid the deer-frozen-in-the-headlights response, it might serve you well to come up with a simple response.  Something like, “Well, I just retired from X and I’m figuring out what’s next.”

When you’re further along in your retirement and your plans are taking shape, revise your response so it reflects your current status. What you want is a clear, brief message you use to introduce yourself. It can communicate who you are and go beyond what you do. Just a sentence or two, it should be conversational and invite comment.

It takes some thought and a little work to craft your response. You might want to list the activities that are most important to you. Or you might want to focus on who you are and say something about your key skills or traits. And because you will change and grow during your retirement, your response probably will change over time too.

Here’s my present response: “Well, I’ve always been a curious person who loves to learn. My latest project, now that I’m retired, is writing a book about retirement for women.”

This gives my questioner a number of potential responses. They can ask about the book or what other types of projects I’ve undertaken, they can ask what I retired from, they can pursue the idea of learning and being curious, or they can simply say “That’s nice” if they’re not really interested.

Roxanne replies this way: “I’m in the process of downshifting into semi-retirement from my career as a freelance medical writer, so I’m exploring new interests and ways to spend my time at this stage of life.” Similarly, this response allows the conversation to go in several different directions.

You may get asked a different question

We learned from a large number of respondents that they don’t get asked “What do you do?” anymore. By virtue of their age or living in a community surrounded by fellow retirees, not only do fewer people seem to ask, “What do you do?”, most don’t even ask “What did you do?”

Instead, people are asking more thoughtful questions when speaking with retirees, such as “What keeps you busy these days?” or “How do you spend your time?”

Whether the question is “What do you do?” or “What keeps you busy?”, we think it’s important to give some thought to how you want to portray yourself now that there’s no longer a job title to fall back on. What do you want people to know about you? How do you want them to engage with you? How will you answer these questions?

With some thought and a little practice, your response will roll off the tongue with ease and confidence.


Do you get asked “What do you do?” in retirement? How do you respond? Please share!