And What Do You Do?

If you are ever allowed out to meet new people, and occasionally I am, you nay be familiar with one of the most common ice-breakers used in conversation between two people in western society. I have recently been looking into this, trying to ascertain whether it reflects a preoccupation with status or role and if it, as such, demotes the status of retired older adults to something less than useful in society.

To be honest, the jury’s still out on this one. On one hand “What do you do?” seems just a normal thing to say. But it depends upon the age of the persons who are talking and who they are talking to. On another, perhaps it simply provides a means of finding out if there is any common ground between two people. It may, to some, reflect a fairly safe territory where, asking if one is a parent or grandparent, or if one likes birdwatching or train-spotting might make things less comfortable. It may simply be considered a harmless question. However, I would argue that it isn’t. It certainly even makes me falter, lest my chosen career be judged.

I seldom ask people what they do. I usually try to steer a conversation with an unknown person to something neutral like the weather, some interesting book or film or a world event – something we both might feel equal to commenting on. Why? Well, on reflection, it is because I am scared of embarrassing somebody. I would hate to elicit an uncomfortable response because a child had been lost, someone was unemployed or make them feel an outsider to the party.*

I do feel uneasy when we base casual conversation upon elements that are quantitative and can be compared, rather than qualitative and can be appreciated. I engage in conversation with many different people these days, and I deliberately avoid trying to fall into this trap. By avoiding asking questions which one might feel judged by the answer of , one can sometimes find far more out about a person, their attitudes, fears, prejudices, preferences and opinions, rather than crossing the line and invading their personal life.

And another thing. Near enough one third of our population are over 60 and likely to be retired. If one answers the question with “I’m retired”, what does this infer to the common psyche?

  • That they are living a life of leisure?
  • That they are on a fixed income?
  • That they are an ex-something?
  • That they are of no active use anymore?

We should ask ourselves about the nature of ‘retirement’. The very word itself might suggest a withdrawal. If so, I wonder if there is a dangerous concept here, something which leads society to view retired people as of no economic value as a producer any longer. Also, is the whole concept something which leads people at that stage of life to ignore the possibilities of remaining economically active and planning to do so?

Retirement is a convenient thing. Employers can dispense with the old and employ the new (or not replace someone at all, as, let’s face it, it’s even cheaper!). People can hang up their tools and finally find time for all those things they never had time to do because they were working.

Retirement is also an inconvenient thing. Grandchildren can now benefit from your time any time (Oh, the money children save by exploiting their own older parents, as, let’s face it, it’s cheaper!) People can feel they have lost a reason to get out of bed and end up feeling useless and marginalised.

As retirement continues, as well it can and should do for the majority of people, novelties wear off and it becomes clear that, in fact, there may be several phases to this phase of life. Life change, home change, travel, relationship change, occupation change – all these and more are possibilities. I’ve met many people who have never felt busier than since they gave up work. So why do we stick with calling it retirement?

As I believe Earnest Hemmingway wrote:
“Retirement is the ugliest word in the language.”

*It also occurs to me that I might well have an inferiority complex and be scared of having to answer the same question myself in reciprocation when they other person tells me they’re an astronaut.

Retirement is the ugliest word in the language.