Financially Independent, Retired Early(ish) at 57.

“So are you working?”

In between lockdowns is a fantastic time to catch up with old friends.

Recently, I’ve had 3 separate high school reunions with women I haven’t seen for 40 years or so. Each reunion has been so much fun – it’s odd how our lives have been so different in the little details, but have still been the same(ish) in terms of the broad-brush-stroke events.

But something I found myself pondering after the first couple of meetings – how do you ask what people are doing without assuming that they have a job? Many people have their self-image tied in up what they do for a living, but what if, like me, they’ve retired?

In my age group it’s not terribly uncommon for women to have dropped back to part-time work or full retirement, especially if they’ve stayed married. Decades of those two wages makes a difference after a while!

We all know that the usual question when meeting anyone, either for the first time or after a large gap, is to ask, “So what do you do?” This implies that they have a job/career. Is there a different way to ask how they’re spending their days?

I decided to test-drive the question, “So, are you working?” Said with a smile… tone of voice is really important, of course. It seems a more neutral way of asking how they spend their time without the expectation of getting a job title in return.

If they’re working, you’ll get a “Yes, I’m a ………………” or something like,”Yes, I’m working 4 days a week as a …………….”

If they’re not, you’ll get a, “No, I’m retired… never worked… ” Whatever. The only risk I can see is that the person bursts into tears and says they just got laid off. That’d be awkward, but you run that risk anyway with the more usual question.

(Of course, it wouldn’t be so neutral if you added one word – imagine asking “So, are you STILL working?” OMG… can you imagine the expression on the other person’s face? )

So on my third reunion, I asked the question. I already knew what Robyn did for a living – we’d reconnected on BookFace and had had a long chat on Messenger – but I had no idea what Lisa was up to these days.

It worked really well. She smiled and told us that she worked 3 days a week as a district nurse, visiting Mums and young babies in high risk families. There were no weird looks and her reply led into a really interesting discussion about what she does in those three days, as well as how she spends the other 4 days a week.

We had a great talk. Robyn works fulltime as a teacher, Lisa part time and I’m retired, so we were spread along the whole line of possibilities. It was fun to compare the different lifestyles. We all chose the more traditional “caring” careers. Not sure if that’s a product of leaving school in the 1980’s as young, middle-class women or whether we’re just fantastically humanitarian people. We all enjoy/ed our careers though, regardless of the reasons why we entered them.

I know this isn’t a huge thing in the big scheme of life, but I found it an interesting thing to play with.

Has anyone else experimented with how to ask The Question?


  1. Jeff

    It’s interesting; qI lived in France for 2 years in 2012/13. There, it is rude to ask what someone does for work! Also, salaries for most jobs are in the public domain so there’s no mystery around income. Maybe it’s something unique to the English speaking world to obsess about what one ‘does’. There’s a similar obsession around property that doesn’t exist in other parts of the world to the same extent.

    • Frogdancer Jones

      Great name, Jeff!
      Interesting about the norms being different in France. I didn’t know that.

  2. Budget Life List

    I haven’t experimented with The Question but I did Google it. These were my favorite questions to ask instead of, “What do you do?”

    What’s the best thing that happened to you today?
    What are you working on?
    What do you do for fun?
    What are you looking forward to right now?
    How do you spend your days?
    What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned recently?

    • J. Money

      I like the “What do you do for fun” one. People LOVE talking about their hobbies and you get an immediate look into their lives!

    • FrogdancerJones

      These are all excellent questions.

  3. Lisa Ries

    I have found moving away from a large city, people don’t focus on what your job is but what you like doing, so hobbies etc. very refreshing, and more balanced approach.

  4. Scott

    I usually ask “So how do you spend your time these days?”

  5. Maureen

    I’m also a fan of “How do you spend your days?” I retired early-ish at 59 and found that if someone is working, they will quickly let you know. There are a few of us retired in my friend group and the working ones constantly go out of their way to let newcomers know they still work. Probably that identity thing you mentioned.

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