Inside jobs: What do people do all day?

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.

Inside Jobs

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.

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.

Studs Terkel's Working

In the early 1970s, Studs Terkel spent three years traveling across the United States to interview people about their jobs. “How would you describe your work?” he asked his subjects, men and women from all walks of life. And they told him. Terkel's 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do collected 128 of these conversations.

Terkel interviewed nobodies and celebrities. He talked to housewives and farm workers and actors and stock brokers and prostitutes. Terkel even interviewed New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. “I really enjoy what I do,” she said. “I love my occupation.” This attitude is the exception, not the rule.

“I was constantly astonished by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people,” Terkel wrote in the introduction to Working. “No matter how bewildering the times, no matter how dissembling the official language, those we call ordinary are aware of a sense of personal worth — or more often a lack of it — in the work they do.”

A couple of years ago, National Public Radio spent a week sharing audio excerpts from Terkel's Working interviews. And believe it or not, the book was even made into a Broadway musical adapted and directed by Steven Schwartz, a man better known for his work on shows like Godspell, Wicked, and Disney's Pocahontas.

As much as I love both musical theater and Studs Terkel, that looks awful. No wonder it was a flop!

In 2009, Harvey Pekar (and a team of artists) adapted 28 of Terkel's interviews into a graphic novel. As a comic geek and a Terkel fan, I loved it. Below are a few scans from my favorite stories.

From the story of 34-year-old Roberto Acuna, a farm worker and union organizer:

Roberto Acuna, Farm Worker

From the story of 77-year-old Aunt Katherine Haynes, “farm woman”:

Katherine Haynes, Farm Woman

From the story of “deep miner” Joe Haynes, the nephew of Aunt Katherine:

Joe Haynes, Coal Miner

From the story of prostitute Roberta Victor, who started off as a high-priced Manhattan call girl (at age fifteen!) before becoming a streetwalker:

Roberta Victor, Hooker

From the story of actor Rip Torn:

Rip Torn, Actor

From the story of 41-year-old Nick Salerno, who has been a garbageman for eighteen years:

Nick Salerno, Garbageman

From the story of Brett Hauser, a 17-year-old boxboy outside Los Angeles:

Brett Hauser, Boxboy

From the story of Dolores Dante, who has worked as a waitress in the same restaurant for 23 years:

Dolores Dante, Waitress

From the story of 40-year-old stockbroker, David Reed Glover:

David Reed Glover, Stockbroker

From the story of 65-year-old jazz musician, Bud Freeman, who has been playing tenor sax for forty-seven years:

Bud Freeman, Jazz Musician

From the story of gravedigger Elmer Ruiz (whose audio clip I showcased earlier):

Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

From the story of 44-year-old Nick Lindsay, son of poet Vachel Lindsay:

Nick Lindsay, Carpenter

Like most (all?) of Terkel's books, Working is simply a collection of oral histories. The author does a little editorializing — and has an unhidden liberal/progressive bias — but mostly he lets his subjects speak for themselves. I've read several of his other books, and they're all great. (Every time I revisit his work, I'm reminded that I want to do something similar: I want to travel the country and interview people about the nature and meaning of wealth.)

In Praise of the Quotidian Life

In the preface to the Working graphic novel, Harvey Pekar writes:

I was especially pleased to work on this project because Studs Terkel puts a great deal of emphasis, as I do, in writing about quotidian life. The so-called normal aspect of human existence is underemphasized in every form of literature, yet that is the aspect that most readers are familiar with and can most easily identify with.

The style of life I myself am familiar with is the quotidian.

But just because one writes about everyday life doesn't mean it's uninteresting; in fact, I find it's most fascinating, because it is so seldom written about. Virtually every person is potentially a great subject for a novel or a biography or a film. Bravo to Terkel for documenting these fascinating lives.

You won't find any deep insights into the human condition while browsing the interviews in Working or The Atlantic‘s Inside Jobs project.

What you'll get instead is a sort of voyeuristic glimpse into what other people do to make ends meet. You'll learn how some people live to work, and how others work to live. Mostly you'll be entertained by the variety of human experience.

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Pamela
Pamela
9 years ago

I owned a hard cover copy of Working for many years and dipped into it over and over. People are very eloquent when someone is listening, really listening to them. As I consider these stories today, I think of many people I meet now who are dissatisfied with the whole idea of working at a conventional 9-to-5 job and hope there is something better out there that will give them more control over their destiny. It would be interesting to see someone who loves stories as much as Terkel interview workers born after 1950. I had no idea this book… Read more »

Susan
Susan
9 years ago

Cool – I really loved the original book. A few years ago, someone published a modern version called “Gig”. The interviews aren’t as brilliant as terkel’s (he was just a genius in my opinion), but it’s fun because it looks at today’s work world.

bon
bon
9 years ago

Love, love, love Brenda Ueland.

Wade
Wade
9 years ago

I’d never actually heard of this book before, and I find the concept and excerpts to be very interesting. It is kind of a unique view of how workers of that era felt. Take for example, the worker from the “Bible Belt” that is working for a “Yankee” after the “War of Northern Aggression.” It is very interesting what these people thought of the jobs they performed.

e e cummings
e e cummings
9 years ago

As a Studs Terkel fan, and (partly because of darling husband) a budding comics fan (or BD where I live) I give this review 2 thumbs up. The book is now on my list for the next book-buying round. Thanks for the information!!!

Kim
Kim
9 years ago

I highly recommend: Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America by Barbara Ehrenreich. This is an infomrative and startling portrait of the working poor. Here’s the A-zon link:

http://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Dimed-Not-Getting-America/dp/0805063897

Chickybeth
Chickybeth
9 years ago

What I found most interesting about this post was the quote form the younger worker talking about the boss: “We do the job and we do it fine, but he doesn’t know why. The older guys work because they want to get ahead but he doesn’t know why we do.” It seems like that’s why everyone is complaining these days about Generation Y. People don’t understand their motivation for wanting to make the world better and so they consider them lazy. It’s nice to be reminded how every generation goes through the same cycles and how today’s idealist will be… Read more »

brokeprofessionals
brokeprofessionals
9 years ago

That one graphic novel story about the “sanitation worker” reminded me of growing up. My father had an honest job, worked a ton of hours, and put food on the table, but I would be ashamed because the other kids would make fun of me for it. Now as an adult I am, of course, ashamed for not respecting what my dad was sacrificing and giving up so I could go to college oneday, to put on the table, etc. I too find the every day life activities of the average person interesting.

chacha1
chacha1
9 years ago

When I was in my early teens, my Dad gave me a comic book about a character called Primero Dinero. It was all about microeconomics and entrepreneurship. Primero got into all kinds of scrapes including a shipwreck and, fabulously, I seem to recall a liaison with Morgan Fairchild. It wasn’t kid-level stuff. 🙂 It was funny but very instructive.
Edited to add – out of curiosity I did a quick search and there are two copies for sale at Abebooks, expensive, but if this is your bag, might be a good addition to the collection. “The Adventures of Primero Dinero.”

PigPennies
PigPennies
9 years ago

Thank you for posting these excerpts! Everyone does have something important to say, but sometimes that’s easy to forget about yourself when you’re working 9-5 under fluorescent light bulbs in a synergy cube.

I.N.
I.N.
9 years ago

As a former escort and someone concerned with sex worker rights, I am glad to see a call-girl represented among working people. A recurring theme in discussions I see between activists is that we need to change the discourse about sex work to what it really is about – work. With its ups and downs, challenges and joys, people who like it and people who don’t but just do it for the money. And looking at the garbage truck driver example or all the jokes about lawyers, I can also see we are not the only ones with a stigma… Read more »

AnonAgain
AnonAgain
9 years ago

Apologies in advance for nitpicking, but while this may be “graphic novel style,” it ain’t a novel if it’s non-fiction. Some people may consider “comic book” to be pejorative, but using the more formal, less accurate term smacks of insecurity (just like “sanitation engineer”).

MutantSuperModel
MutantSuperModel
9 years ago

I love Harvey Pekar and would love to read that book but alas my library’s stock of graphic novels is pretty much non-existent. This is one of those charity things I put into my mental background as things I want to do when I “can afford to be generous.” Donating a good collection of graphic novels to the library is definitely up there.

Jon @ Be Net Worthy
Jon @ Be Net Worthy
3 years ago

Great article JD. In just reading a few of the excerpts you included above, it gives me an appreciation for my own job and how good I have it at global mega-corp!

A little perspective is always a good thing.

Lindsay @ Notorious D.E.B.T.
Lindsay @ Notorious D.E.B.T.
3 years ago

This is fantastic! I’m just making my way into the working world now and I’m at a crossroads in my own fledgeling career. I could go any of several ways and I’ve thought long and hard about what each path would mean for me in the future. I always wonder what other people think about the paths they’ve gone down too. My own mother was deeply unhappy in her career and never changed; she always stressed the importance to me of finding a good, high-paying job that makes me happy – something that’s not as easily done as she thought… Read more »

ESI Money
ESI Money
3 years ago

One of the Sunday inserts (Parade or USA Today weekend) used to run an issue on what people did (job title) and what they were paid.

It was so fascinating to see the pictures, what the person did, and what they made. There seemed to be almost no way to guess what someone made based on the title they had — which is what made the issue so compelling.

Not sure if they do it anymore but if so, I think you’d like seeing it.

Sharon
Sharon
3 years ago

Thanks for the link, I look forward to reading about people’s jobs. You might enjoy listening to the Slate podcast called Working which are interviews with people with all sorts of j9bs.

Michael Clark
Michael Clark
1 year ago

Umm, “box box”? 🙂

I read “Working” in high school. I remember enjoying it, but don’t recall any of the jobs that were covered.

S.G.
S.G.
1 year ago

Where did the comment dates go? I know your blog is timeless, but I use those to scan quickly for new comments. I hope I don’t come across as critical, but when you mentioned that you would like to do something similar I wondered why you haven’t. You already DID take a cross country tour and that seems like the perfect opportunity to have done a project like that. I have also been thinking about how a “nature and meaning of wealth” study would work. Perhaps I am a cynic but I think you’d wind up with a bunch of… Read more »

Stellamarina
Stellamarina
1 year ago

Loved this blog post!

Another Richard Scary fan.

Sharon
Sharon
1 year ago

I love hearing about people’s jobs. There is a good podcast from Slate called Working that interviews a wide variety of people about their work.

Carol
Carol
1 year ago

I was happy to see you mention Brenda Ueland’s book! I read it years ago in high school and just reread it recently for motivation.

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 year ago

When I first started reading this, I hoped you’d mention Studs Terkel.

BTW, I first met my husband when he was in a production of Working, which I really enjoyed. Some songs are better than others, but a lot have become dated.

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