About 20 years ago I asked a woman this question, as you often do when you've just met someone and are casting about for conversation, and let myself in for a good few minutes of lecturing on what an annoying and dumb question that was. I don't remember if she ever actually answered it, and at the time I thought she was a pretentious wanker. However, I have over the years realised that she had a bit of a point. It is a fairly loaded question to ask, both because these days, once again, a lot of people are not in paid work and are already feeling miserable about it without having to make it known to strangers and put up with all the guff that follows, and because some people seem to ask it as a way of allowing themselves to pigeonhole you immediately as acceptable or unacceptable. I've floundered over this question more than once in the past, even in the days when I had a Proper Job (as defined by an office to work in and a salary paid monthly into my bank account) because the Proper Job was a bit unusual. I would say, oh well I work in publishing and try to change the subject. Magazine publishing, I would say, if pressed a bit harder. I would try to guage whether the person asking thought that I was bigging myself up because I was 'really' a secretary/receptionist/some other womanjob and trying to make it sound more interesting just because I was a service appliance for the men in an impressive corporation, or if they had already gleaned some idea of what I did and wanted to see if I would admit it. (Don't waste your energy speculating, I was an editor of of porn mags). These days, I find the question even more of a pain, because I still can't actually give a straight enough, quick enough answer to allow everyone to feel that the formalities have been observed. Yes, I put leaflets in letterboxes and get paid for it. I also sometimes knock on people's doors and ask them if they want to complete surveys. In addition to that I am a trained wedding celebrant, a representative of a well-known catalogue seller, an occasional specialist market trader and a phone-sex operator. I'm starting another little business related to the funeral industry. And, far less often than before, I sometimes get paid for writing stuff as well. So when someone asks me, I fluff and go, oh well, various odds and ends, really. And the person thinks that I must be a drug dealer or a fence, or a sex worker.
Given that most jobs are not, exactly, the stuff of intense passion, why do people want other people to be defined by the way they earn their income? Once you've asked someone what they do, and been informed that they work in personnel, or on the checkout, or are the junior head of stationary purchasing, do you really want to have a whole conversation about that? Some people do wrap their identity in their jobs, but many more consider their real selves and real lives to have very little to do with what brings in the money: they are performers, artists, all-England scrabble champions, bell-ringers or poets.
A lot of jobs are not very interesting to do, but are reasonably necessary. So people will always have to do them: the selling of things, the wiping of arses, the cleaning of floors, the production of food. It isn't shameful to work in such jobs, but it's understandable to regard them as a means to support yourself while you 'do' other things.