What We Learned From Interviews With 100 American Workers

Two Atlantic staffers discuss Inside Jobs, a months-long reporting project that included conversations with an obituary writer, a janitor, a train conductor, and many others.

Over the course of the last several months, Atlantic staffers spoke to more than 100 American workers for a reporting series called Inside Jobs. At its inception the project was an attempt to humanize some of the data reflected in the Labor Department’s monthly jobs report. Below, the project’s leaders, Adrienne Green and Bourree Lam, discuss their experiences talking to dozens of American workers about their jobs and lives.

Bourree Lam: I cover the jobs report every month. The numbers in these reports, produced by thousands of people, are scrutinized closely by economists and policy makers. The idea of somehow humanizing the broader economic picture of America was a huge motivating factor for this project. We had done interviews with people who had kind of oddball jobs in the past—for example, last year I had interviewed a retired hostage negotiator about his job and advice he had for things like salary negotiations. As fun as that was, at some point we started thinking not about unusual jobs but about those that are so common that they don’t often make the news. We wanted to talk to Americans from different sectors of the economy, from every state, as well as from different demographic and educational backgrounds. To me, this meant that we could go beyond those big macro numbers, which can seem abstract, and tell the story of the American economy one worker at a time.

Adrienne Green: At first, 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.

I was impressed with people’s candor about their struggles, how their occupations were (or were not) integral to their sense of self-worth, and the ease with which they could identify what would make their job better: a better wage, more people around that looked like them, or more time to invest in their lives outside of work altogether.

Lam: The interview with Mohamed Zaker, the janitor at Harvard, has come to my mind every single time I’ve thrown something away since then—and I definitely haven’t left something on the ground for a janitor to deal with. I think one part of what I really appreciate about this series is the way the interviewees really made me reflect about the way my behavior directly affects other people. That came from them explaining what they actually do, and also from the many comments people made about how easily common decency can be achieved. I worry that we don’t think enough about the people around us, perhaps because we ourselves sometimes feel ignored.

It doesn’t take a poll to tell you (although here’s one) that for most Americans, a job or career gives a sense of identity and work can be deeply personal. In Asia, where I started my career, a job was often just a job. My relatives would say to me, “Don’t take things so personally at work—it’s just a job.” But in these interviews, I found that people just accepted that their work and their identity were closely intertwined. One dimension of this that was fascinating to me was that for Americans for whom faith or family was very important, those things shaped how they saw themselves as workers, and whether they judged themselves as a good person or not.

Another thing we discovered through these conversations is how very much alive professional associations are in American working life across many professions. The people involved are really excited about having peers to talk to and grow with, candid about their workplace and their career goals, and genuinely interested in being part of a work community outside of the office. There’s an aspect of self-actualization as well: Time and again, we heard interviewees tell us that their job wasn’t for everyone, but it was for them. For me, that tied together why so many Americans are involved in professional organizations. It’s a feeling of “us” outside of family, faith, and one’s own workplace.

Green: Work is an organizing principle of American life. It dictates what most people do for a majority of their waking hours, their position within the societal hierarchy, and the amount of comfort they can provide for themselves and their dependents. While this is a general truth for American society at large, many of the interviewees revealed a more nuanced version of the balance between their “work selves” and their “real selves.” For some, their actual lives began where their work ended, for others their work was an all-consuming extension of their being (some called businesses and projects “their babies”). Others saw their communities as an extension of their working identities, such as Idahoans’ “blue-collar mentality,” or North Dakotans’ self-proclaimed “legendary work ethic.”

I think it is easy to expect that people have lofty motivations for their work, like helping others or contributing to the greater good. But a lot of people were simply trying to put food on the table for their families or make enough money to pursue passions in what they consider their real lives. I’m someone who is constantly concentrated on her professional aspirations, and the greatest lesson I took from this project is that it’s okay for work to only be a part of what makes a person.

One interview that I continue to come back to is one with Jeni Strand, a human-resources manager. During our interview, she said, “We’re getting more and more understanding about the fact that we're employing a whole being. We're employing their families, their history, what's happening in their life, and we better get really good at accepting that nobody just leaves everything else at the door.” Whether they articulated it explicitly or not, so many of the stories about how folks navigated the workplace were tied to how they identified compared to those around them. Their experiences as men or women, or Black or Latinx, or LGBT or straight, or any combination of various identities impacted the way that others perceived them at work and how they perceived themselves—for better many times, for worse at others. Of the 100 or so interviews, no one left themselves at the door, and that’s what made this project so interesting to me.