Millennial Job Shame: "So, What Do You Do?"

I was inspired to write this article after a conversation I had with a client about how she feels anxious and uncomfortable when telling people what she does for work. No surprise –– she doesn't like her job, she doesn't like talking about it, doesn't like thinking about it, feels it doesn’t reflect any part of who she is as a person, and that it brings no value in the “getting to know you” process… only judgment. On a more positive note, feeling this way is what helped her recognize the need to make a change in her career path and decide that it was time to get started on her own business idea. Instead of feeling "defined" by her current job, she looked at it as a temporary stepping stone. Something that she is learning from and is supporting her while she pursues her passion.

Depending on your age, and what you do for a living, the "What do you do?" question can provoke a wide range of strong emotions. It’s a question that almost always comes up when meeting someone new, yet many people are still uncomfortable answering it.


"It's common in our society for assumptions about personal worth to be based on how much income someone has, what work they do, and other external measures of wealth, status, or lack thereof. People on the low-end of 'The Money Measuring Stick' constantly have to resist negative assumptions that are projected upon them."

- Cynthia A. L'Hirondelle, Tossing The Money Measuring Stick into the Dustbin of Embarrassing Human History



When I started helping millennial women with their business goals, it was common to hear that part of their motivation was to improve the happiness and purpose in their careers. Something that would often come up when discussing their current 'day job' was that they were feeling some degree of job shame when meeting someone new (knowing that they were going to have to talk about their work).

If you live in Canada like me, we are quite lucky here compared to the classism and judgment that goes on in other countries. I find that where I live people don’t care as much (whether you grew up rich or poor) but there does seem to be a common "curiosity" whether you have a good job/status now. Especially in Vancouver, being one of the most expensive places to live in the world, many feel the pressure to “make it” on their own and be able to keep up with a “successful” appearance.

For this blog post I decided to ask twenty women living in Vancouver, B.C. and Victoria, B.C. (between the ages of 23-36), with varying jobs and backgrounds, their thoughts on this question:

What emotions or internal response do you have when you meet someone new

and are asked, “what do you do?”

*The results were surprising because only 4 out of the 20 women had a positive response to the question. Even the women with “good jobs” expressed feelings of pressure, and anxiety. Here is what some of the young women had to say:

“intimidated, like I need to please them… show that I have a good job”

“my first response is nervous…sometimes it makes me sad to talk about with people because it’s not my dream job and reminds me of all the stress”

“I use to feel weird but lately I never know how to respond because I’m doing many different jobs. I guess you could say confused”

“Excited mostly, so I consider myself very lucky because I’m doing what I’m passionate about and get to help people improve their life so drastically. But I’ve had jobs in the past, that I didn’t like, and therefore didn’t like talking about it.”

“Embarrassment. Annoyance. Shame. Probably in that order.”

“I usually feel very proud and lucky that I love the path I’m on and feel aligned with what I’m passionate about and what the world is deeply needing.”

“Judgment, it’s like an automatic label on who you are as a person and gets me uncomfortable. When I use to work at ***** it was more shame and now my job gets more accepted but it still makes me angry and even sad… If you don’t have a career that meets societies standard you’re assumed to be not good enough, broke, poor family etc. Could be all in my head, but it’s the way I see it.”

“Awkward. Pressure. Anxiety. But as you get older doesn’t seem to get asked as much. Or I try to prepare myself ahead of time depending on who I think I’ll be talking to.”

“I feel good knowing I have a great paying job that supports me and my lifestyle. It secures me for life. But really I feel frustrated maybe, burnt out. Frustrated by the job and because I know the next question will be ‘do you like it?’ Which I usually answer that I don’t hate it. I have good days and bad days. But it’s a really stressful and busy environment. After a while your emotions about the job just go numb.”

“I love to talk about what I do, so I’m cool with it but sometimes I just answer ‘I do what I want!’ lol. I always try to ask people what they like to do or like to spend their time… instead of leading with ‘what do you do’, because I think some people take it as if the person asking will instantly judge them by it and that they are not defined by what by their job is.”

I know it will be tempting to jump on the Millennial stereotype bandwagon… and say Millennials feel this way because they are “entitled”, “lazy”, have “too high expectations”, and “think they are special”. Some of that might be true to a certain extent but I don’t think it’s all necessarily a bad thing.

Maybe previous generations weren’t open about their true desires and passions enough, maybe it’s time to realize how special everyone is, and maybe if we all embrace our high expectations of what we want out of life we would have a lot more people in the world doing what they love. Is that bad? I don’t think wanting to enjoy and have a purpose in your work (a big chunk of how you spend your time on this planet) is asking for too much.

I don’t think it’s a problem to think you are special. Everyone is special in their own unique way. To be honest, I think it’s more concerning to have people thinking they aren't special...


As far as “lazy” goes… In a world full of people/businesses PRO-ACTIVELY destroying the planet, depleting natural recourses, and exploiting the vulnerable with their “important work” and "productivity", I think laziness is the least of our worries.


I would much rather have a so-called “lazy” artist stay home, thinking they are special and painting than have them join the corrupt paradigm to see who can make the most money without any regard for the environment or ethics.

How many people are discouraged from going into the trades where they can work with their hands, something they like, and are instead pressured into pursuing an academic field — purely because some jobs get more status than others.

Those who have always loved their work might not relate to this article at all, but might find it interesting to see things from a different perspective. As someone who has experienced it and talked to many people who have had “job shame” it most definitely can be a sensitive topic for those who are unhappy at their jobs and feel judged by their occupation. Although I LOVE what I do now, I still find it much more interesting asking people about their life and hobbies first. It is (and will likely continue to be) one of the most common ways to make small talk — but I still choose not to lead with this question right away and try to be conscious of who I’m talking to and the overall vibe. If you think about it, it's essentially just asking “So, how do you make money?”. I've noticed if people love their jobs, it will naturally come up in conversation anyway, regardless of if you ask, which is a great way to build a comfortable conversational flow.


"Unfortunately, the question 'So what do you do?' is likely to fall short of inviting people to share the coolest, most interesting things about themselves. When we lead with that question, we’re far more likely to pigeonhole people based on assumptions we have about their particular line of work."

- William Bratt, How We Resist Being Defined By Our Jobs


Maybe if we can change our approach to how we find value in others, we will discover all the other great ways to build rapport and become more interested in asking each other "What do you enjoy doing?" instead.

If you feel a lot of pressure from this question, and are experiencing your quarter-life ‘funk’ I want you to know you are not alone, and that you don’t need to face it alone. I want more young women to feel fulfilled, proud, and WANT to talk about their work and accomplishments. My goal is to help women just like you, start LOVING what they do.

I would be honoured to work with you on your journey through entrepreneurship and help you design your own kind of success. Book your free call now. Much Love, Megan Barker



Related Articles:

Tossing The Money Measuring Stick into the Dustbin of Embarrassing Human History by Cynthia A. L'Hirondelle

"It's common in our society for assumptions about personal worth to be based on how much income someone has, what work they do, and other external measures of wealth, status, or lack thereof. People on the low-end of 'The Money Measuring Stick' constantly have to resist negative assumptions that are projected upon them."

Somebodies and Nobodies

by Robert Fuller

"By analogy, rank-based discrimination might be called "rankism. Somebodies and Nobodies explains our reluctance to confront rankism, and argues that abuse based on power differences is no more justified than abuse based on color or gender differences."

The Manly Mythology of Work

by Cynthia A. L'Hirondelle

"Artists, writers, musicians - their work is what makes the world bearable for many. Although they can be part of the formal market economy, many are not. Nor is the image of someone writing a story, painting a picture, or playing music regarded as an image of 'hard work'."

How We Resist Being Defined By Our Jobs

by William Bratt

"Unfortunately, the question 'So what do you do?' is likely to fall short of inviting people to share the coolest, most interesting things about themselves. When we lead with that question, we’re far more likely to pigeonhole people based on assumptions we have about their particular line of work."

Keeping Up Appearances (TV Tropes)

TV comedy series

"A classic Brit Com that aired on The BBC from 1990 to 1995.Snobby, shallow, and blissfully unaware of how annoying she is, Hyacinth is desperately worried that she isn't upper-class enough. Which, considering her family (Rose, Onslow, and Daisy), she definitely isn't."

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