Who are you when you are not working? Evan sat at the picnic table, waiting for his sons to emerge from their classrooms for the day.
“If people ask me what I do, I sometimes tell them I am writing a book,” he says. It is a get-out-of jail-free-card. It explains the hours he spends with his iPad in coffee shops and he is not required to furnish any proof.
Evan chose to stay at home to take care of his boys while his wife continued her stellar career. He has a couple of heavyweight degrees and a stint as a CEO in his background.
“Sometimes I say I have retired and that shuts them up,” he says.
Across the picnic table from him is Leon, waiting for his grandchildren. Leon has not drawn a salary since he was in his 20s and managed to raise a family by turning an inheritance into a living, renovating properties and making careful, conservative investments.
“I called myself a company director,” he advises Evan. His daughter called him a dilettante – a description that clearly delights Evan but makes Leon uncomfortable. Despite his lack of a job, as such, Leon is a workaholic and is competent in many areas.
“I prefer flaneur,” Evan says. This has the feel of a dandy and means, stroller, lounger and loafer.
Evan in fact is just as busy as Leon, using his non-parenting hours to help out at the school and do other important community work.
The awkwardness that these two men experience when faced with the “What do you do” question is that there is no easy answer in a culture that celebrates achievement at work – paid work – and not at home.
It is, of course, a dilemma well-known to women. How many times have we been in mixed company, overlooked in conversation, until we mention what we do for a living?
“It is understandable, in a way,” says Evan. “From that bit of information [a job], there are a whole range of conversations that can be had.”
If you say you don’t have a job, other than looking after your family, conversations tend to be limited to schools and other child-related topics, which get pretty boring after the millionth airing.
Of course it’s quite another thing entirely if you are forceably separated from your job and career – and there are plenty of people who are desperate to get back into the workforce and who have to come up with a range of excuses about their failure.
If it is not bad enough to lose your identity through a retrenchment, how much worse is it to be constantly rejected in your attempts to get it back?
Not only does your self-confidence take a real beating, it must also make you question whether you were ever any good in the first place. The grief caused by job loss is very real and can be devastating.
This is the case even when someone voluntarily retires, going from an active member of the working world, respected and relied upon, to being another anonymous grey-hair, talked down to as if you have also left half your brain behind at the farewell “do”.
There is little argument that we, as a society, have allowed work to take up too much of our sense of identity. It leaves us vulnerable whenever our jobs are threatened. To build resilience, we need to look at the other things we are.
Physician, Lissa Rankin, writes that she likes to play with people’s minds when they ask what she does and prefers to be the life of the party as an “artist”, rather than the typecasting that comes with being a doctor.
“For a while, I started telling people I’m a pirate, only nobody believed me. They didn’t buy that I was a Vegas showgirl or a professional pogo stick bouncer either. But at least it led to lively conversation,” she writes in Psychology Today.
“After telling one woman that I’m a doctor, artist, author of two books, public speaker, coach, workshop leader and mother, she said, totally deadpan, ‘You know there’s treatment for people like you’.
“So I quit answering the question altogether. Now I simply say, ‘I prefer not to answer that question because I am more than what I do, but I’d like to ask you a question, ‘What’s awesome about your life?’.”
I think that is a bit hokey for Australians but the theory is good. How about starting with asking what they do when they are not at work?