Jamie Kelly’s job title is national marketing programmes manager. That really means “employee marketing training manager”, she explains, as if that clarifies her role to adults, much less kids. The way Kelly’s six-year-old daughter sees it, her mother travels to a big building, sits in her office and fools around at a computer. Is that inaccurate? “No, not really,” says Kelly. On the other hand, it makes her ponder, “What do I do all day?”
If you are teetering on the edge of a midlife crisis, you may want to forgo asking the kids what they think you do for a living. Their answers might be cute—except for the fact that they are accurate. The vast majority of information-age workers actually do spend their days talking on the phone and staring at a screen. They may pace, but there is no edge-of-your-seat action.
So, consider it from the kids’ perspective. They might spend all day talking and typing on computers but, unlike us, they do not get paid a nickel for it.
“One of the problems affluent, middle-class parents have is explaining to their kids the value of what they do, as opposed to passing along a sense of entitlement,” says Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at the Evergreen State College. At least, in the Industrial Age, “You produced products that people could understand,” she says.
Because kids’ impressions are not wrong, technically, it can cause a little introspection. George Reinhart is the director of associate service for New England at the Conference Board, a business-research and peer-networking organization. That means he sells information and, like any salesman, makes lots of phone calls, not all of which go as planned.
It also means, as his 14-year-old told him so succinctly two years ago, “You are always rejected and you always have to apologize,” he recalls. “You could take away from that, God, what a loser you are. But I do not think she meant it that way—at least, I hope she didn’t mean it that way.”
At a time when few documents are paper, the ephemera of our work product can be mystifying to more than just our children. “I’m shocked every day that I get paid to do the stuff that I do because I can’t even describe it,” says Steven Keith, a hard-working director of interactive communications at what, after much discussion, appears to be more or less an interactive advertising agency.
“My dad was an ironworker,” he says, speaking volumes in a single word.
Keith explained to his boys that his job is to “make money” for food and shelter. So, when they drove four hours last year to visit Washington’s Bureau of Engraving and Printing, his son noted, “That’s why you’re so grumpy—because you have to drive all this way to work.”
John McGuire remembers his father’s identifying Air Force uniform at home. He has his own type of uniform as a regional vice-president of sales for a large networking company, which allows him to work from home. “They just see me hanging around in my shorts and talking on the phone,” he says.
Job specialization means that even when the kids do know what your company does, they do not get your role in it. That is why parents have to concede to their kids’ questions with phrases, such as, “Not me personally, but my company.”
Dean Souleles explained to his 15-year-old son that his company builds hospital-management software. No, he does not write it himself, but he does manage people who do. “So, what do you do?” his son still asked.
Not something as cool as the boy once thought. A few years ago, Souleles became president of the company’s enterprise division. Then nine, his son asked if he worked with Captain Kirk and Mr Spock.
“It would be a lot more fun to be able to talk about that,” says Souleles.
His job is hard to glamorize: “I spend most of my day trying to get people to do what they ought to be doing without me having to tell them they ought to be doing it.”
Nina Lawrence, publisher of W fashion magazine, brings her kindergartener “business traveller guilt gifts” such as key rings and tiny statues. That is why her boy has told people that “she works at the Eiffel Tower”.
We should not feel bad. Chelsea Clinton reportedly used to describe her father, the former Commander in Chief, this way: “He gives speeches, drinks coffee, and talks on the telephone.” Yo-Yo Ma’s son thought his father worked at the airport because the world-renowned cellist was always rushing to one.
Gary Grote’s six-year-old daughter has figured out the skills required for a bank vice-president of corporate lending: typing, talking and going to lunch a lot.
Grote cannot argue with that. “When you boil it down, that’s pretty much the deal,” he says. He, too, could understand his father’s job, grain-elevator owner, easier than his kids can understand his. “You could see and touch the grain moving through the elevator,” he says. “I’ve worked at the bank for 15 years. It’s been 14 years since I touched a bit of currency other than getting it out of my own account.”
(Write to Jared at firstname.lastname@example.org)