Last week, I found myself revisiting the fantastic Inside Jobs project from The Atlantic. Atlantic staffers interviewed 103 American workers from all walks of life. The magazine then collected those interviews into a single, unified website.
Here's how one of the project's leaders describes her aims:
So much of my aspiration for this project was to hear from people affected by the realities that business writers so often cover: what it's like to be a minority in a workplace, or the challenges of working parenthood, or the struggle to remain relevant as an industry changes. And we succeeded in finding those types of stories — for example, the three female lawyers who started their own firm, or the coal miner who is adapting to the focus on clean energy.
The ones that most stuck with me most were the people in the jobs many consider mundane, such as the janitor who so acutely equated people's respect for his job with their ability to throw away their own trash, or workers outside of the traditional economy, such as the stay-at-home mother who struggled to find her place in a feminist movement that emphasizes women’s professional achievements.
The Inside Jobs website has a fun layout. Each interview has its own page. From the main index, you can filter stories by subject, or filter workers by industry, age, or other demographic factors. Or, if you're like me, you can simply scroll down and click on any of the 103 worker portraits to read a random interview.
What Do People Do All Day?
The Inside Jobs project reminds me of one of my favorite books from childhood, Richard Scarry's classic What Do People Do All Day? I've always been fascinated by the vast variety of work available to people, and how different each job is from every other job. Sure, there's a degree of sameness, but there are tons of differences.
- As a blogger, I sit at home all day and write. In a way, it's like I'm an artist (but without any sort of actual artistry). Everything about Get Rich Slowly comes from me. If I don't work, nothing happens here. (Actually, this isn't quite true anymore. Nowadays, Rachel manages social media and Tom is handling business development.)
- This process is similar to the one faced by my friends who are entrepreneurs or professionals. When you own your own business, it's up to you to make it succeed. When you have your own accounting firm or law office, it's up to you to build your reputation and client base.
- Then there are folks like my girlfriend Kim, who works as a dental hygienist. Whereas I see nobody all day long, she sees tons of new patients every day she works. Her work is physically demanding; mine is not.
- I have other friends who are band teachers and forensic chemists. I know engineers and salesmen and psychiatrists. I know lost of financial planners, of course, as well as factory foremen and county bureaucrats and hospital administrators.
It's just like Richard Scarry taught me when I was a pre-schooler: Everyone is a worker.
And it's just like Brenda Ueland taught me (in a book about writing, of all places): Everyone is talented, original, and has something important to say. It’s the personal histories that make up history (by which I mean the grand tapestry of world events). Without your story — and mine — the larger story doesn’t exist. The mass movements of kingdoms and cultures are built on our backs.
Maybe that's why I like oral histories so much.
Speaking of which, the Inside Jobs project naturally reminds me (and many others) of the work of journalist Studs Terkel. [Read more…]