Todd: What has surprised you about the places you’ve visited so far?
Reutzel: Cleveland and Pittsburgh were surprising in the best way. Since manufacturing jobs disappeared, Rust Belt cities have been trying to reinvent themselves, and they both have great arts scenes and downtowns. It’s good to see that cities can be adaptable. And the people too—they’re chameleon-like, bouncing around from job to job, and also pursuing big ideas like opening their own businesses.
Todd: What’s one example of a person who’s gone that route?
Reutzel: In Cleveland I met a guy, Ryan, who was an adventure-tour guide in India and then married an American lady a couple years ago. But he’s had trouble finding a job in the States, especially since India doesn’t have a credit system.
Eventually he got a job as a pharmacy technician, but that was minimum wage. So his neighbors suggested that he sign up for Uber, which actually pays better. Now he shuttles a lot of people to the airport, especially in the early mornings. And his neighbor has developed an app that determines when surge pricing is happening, so they know when to turn on their Uber apps so they can make more money.
Todd: This pattern of moving from job to job—do you think it’s sustainable for people in the long-term?
Reutzel: With the downturn in the economy in the U.S., people have had to find their own way. Now we have these odd-job economies and sharing economies, and Millennials and sometimes Baby Boomers as well are all trying to create their own perfect lives. They’re not tied down to one job because they need a pension. They think, “I’m going to do what I want to do in this particular moment to make me happy and make the economy work for me.”
I think a lot of the ideas about what you have when you get older, like savings accounts and 401(k)s, are going to have to change. Personally, I’m relatively good at saving, but then I usually blow most of that on a trip and then start building it back up. I think that’s okay.
Todd: So people are just going to live the way they need to, and society will have to catch up with systems that work in that reality.
Reutzel: For example, there’s the idea of a guaranteed minimum income, which they have in a couple places in Europe. I’ve been talking to a guy in Maine who thinks this is going to be necessary as machines take over human jobs.
Usually, when blue-collar jobs get automated, that tends to push people into colleges so that they can get white-collar jobs. But now white-collar jobs are getting automated too. So maybe there’s a breaking point.
Todd: I’m wondering about your approach to avoiding poverty tourism. By which I mean that some journalists fail to capture people’s real experiences of poverty because they offer only a superficial look at their circumstances or impose their own ideas on their subjects. So how do you make sure you’re fully representing people even though you may have a limited amount of time in each place?