From now until we achieve the sweet bliss of retirement, we will all encounter the devastatingly difficult question, “What do you do?” Often this will come from someone who honestly couldn’t give a damn, but you will be forced to come up with a watered-down, brief explanation to appease this family member or new acquaintance. As an actuary, someone with a job that’s been rated as the number one job in the country by The Wall Street Journal but that no one actually understands, I have faced this question on many occasions. I have spent days honing my response into a succinct and easily understood statement, and I’m going to teach you how to do the same.
Step #1 State your title and company
This is an easy step. If you have any sort of corporate job, you certainly hold some meaningless title that in no way clarifies what you actually do, but it will serve as an appetizer – just a way to get this your interviewer thinking in the right direction – lead with this. Next, and this works especially well if you work for a well-known company, mention the company’s name. This will cause at least a few neurons to fire for your inquisitor if they’ve ever heard of your company. If not, it will at least give you more legitimacy than they guy who claims to be “self-employed.”
Example: “I work as an actuarial analyst for [name of my company redacted for their sake].”
Step #2 Explain what division you work in
No one, except maybe your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss, will actually have a grasp on the full scope of your company’s work. Don’t waste time trying to explain that you work for a global provider of human resources consulting solutions. They don’t care and won’t understand. You want to be vague and brief. Stick to a broad stroke at your divisions main purpose – it will usually be fairly simple based on your division’s name. I would also recommend throwing in some idea about who your work actually benefits. It’s much easier for anyone to get a grasp on your job once they understand who you really work for.
Example: “As an employee in the Retirement division, I primarily deal with consulting related to private company’s pension plans.”
Step #3 Blow them away
Now that you’ve reeled them in, it’s time to throw in a bunch of jargon that only someone who does the exact same job as you would understand. Now, be advised that this will in no way help this poor bastard understand your job – it will merely make them think that you’re much more intelligent and important than previously thought. I would advocate for an extremely specific and focused response based on your day to day work. Your goal here should be to ensure them that they would be utterly incapable of ever understanding or doing your job.
Example: “I focus on the long term impacts of defined-benefit pension plans and help our clients understand the financial risks associated with their projected future cash flows based on fluctuations in the interest rate environment, potential pension-related legislation, and assumptions made about their employees’ decrements, including turnover, disability and mortality rates.”
That’s it! A few simple sentences and you too can explain your job to anyone. Well, maybe they still won’t have a goddamn clue, but at least you’ll help convince them (and yourself) that you are actually spending the vast majority of your life in a meaningful way. You know, as opposed to facing the reality that you basically help CEOs shaft their lowest workers on getting any sort of retirement worth working for.