Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

A neighbour has asked you to call round for a New Year drink. His cousin is visiting, and you are introduced. The conversation goes like this:

You: Nice to meet you. Where do you live? Well, you've got to say something
Him: Paris
You: What area?   He could say absolutely anything at this point, it would meaning nothing to you, but you will say...
You: Oh yes, I know, do you like it there?
Him: Yes, it's lovely.  Uncomfortable pause. What do you do?

And in the answer to that one question he seeks to sum you up. From the one or two sentences that follow, and the accent in which they are spoken, he will make an instant assessment, right or wrong, of your:

  • Personality
  • Value to society
  • Social status and class
  • Education
  • Income
  • Political views

and whether he sees you as his equal, superior or inferior. Older readers think Two Ronnies and John Cleese. Younger readers click here to find out what I'm talking about.

For the reality is that that question - what do you do? - is really code for who are you?. We are, in so many ways, defined by what we do for a living.

And it's not only others who define us in this way; for many of us it's how we define ourselves. When we're asked that fateful question, how often do we respond with "Well, I'm a great Dad" or "I'm a socialist", "I love cycling" ? Never mind 'you are what you eat", the truth is "you are what you do for a living".

And there's my problem. Until July 2010, I had had a moderately successful career in local government, and my answer to THE question always began "Oh, I'm Head of ... whatever it was at the time... with the local council." Those two words - Head of - instantly positioned me as a senior local government manager with all that that is perceived to entail.

Then I was made redundant, took my pension, and retired. As most readers know, I care for my wife who has dementia. I hope I'm also still a great Dad, a sort of socialist, and I lied about the cycling. The point is, I don't have an easy answer to the 'What do you do' question. None of those activities describes me properly. So I often describe myself as a retired local government manager - what I did rather than what I do. If I'm being honest, it's because what I do doesn't sound as interesting or, truthfully, as important, as what I used to do.

This is an aspect of retirement that I haven't seen discussed anywhere. I'm fortunate enough not to have financial worries, my health is good, I have a loving family. My problem is, I don't have a ready answer - to others or more importantly to myself - to the question  "Who do you think you are?"

Suggestions on a postcard please ...


  1. Interesting topic Robert. 4 years ago it was easy I was a Customer Services Representative working in the back office at British Gas. After 12 years service my job went out to India and I was managed out of work for a disability.

    Now I have another role to play as a "jewellery designer/maker". But that doesn't actually say who I am only what I do.

    So when I am asked I tell people that I like to make women feel beautiful and confident. I would like to think that when someone wears my creations they feel unique and can conquer the world because they are wearing something that is styled for them.


  2. I can identify with your dilemma and it was that very dilemma that had me hopping from one foot to the other whenever someone mentioned retirement. Everyone seemed to think I was crazy because I didn't want to retire but I was so heavily invested in me as a counsellor I kept thinking who will I be if I don't work. Anyway I've done it and I feel fine because the answer is I'm still the same person. I just don't work for a living. In my opinion status can be conferred in different ways. Start the conversations if necessary and say I'm a retired you still work?