The Meaning Americans Find in Their Jobs

Conversations with 100 people about their work and how it shapes who they are

Every month the Labor Department issues its jobs report, providing a snapshot of the American economy—how many people are employed, how many are looking for work, whether wages are improving or declining. Behind all those numbers are people. What motivates them to go to their jobs every day? What are their hopes for themselves and their families? How does their work affect how they see themselves?

Over the course of several months, we spoke with more than 100 American workers of diverse backgrounds, occupations, and regions about what their work. The project was loosely-based on the 1974 Studs Terkel book Working, in which he describes work as, “a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Our interviewees had a lot to say about their jobs, their industries, and their futures: A coal miner in West Virginia talked about what it feels like to work in mining as the industry that once supported his entire community falls apart; a secretary reflected on the cultural pressures that led her to decades of office work; a construction manager wondered whether an economy in which he’s been laid off time and time again is really doing so well; a stay-at-home mom took issue with the idea that her worth was determined by traditional measures of income and achievement.

Many of the workers we talked to expressed immense pride in their work. Even for those for whom work was just work, the experiences were core to their sense of self-worth.

Their stories can be found here—the words of just a few of the human beings whose lives make up the numbers of those jobs reports.