What does work mean to you?

By Caitlin Kelly

These are the tools of an artist. That's work, too!
These are the tools of an artist. That’s work, too!

It’s Labor Day weekend — three days off for many workers in the U.S., where I live, in Canada and some other nations.

It’s always, for me anyway, a time to reflect on why we work and what we’re working for:

  • Daily expenses
  • Retirement savings
  • To fund higher education, for self and/or others
  • Short-term emergency savings
  • Medical insurance/expenses (Americans must buy health insurance like any other consumer product)
  • Major purchases — a vehicle, a home, a boat
  • Challenge
  • Camaraderie with peers and colleagues
  • The thrill of scientific or medical or intellectual discovery
  • Learning and mastering new skills
  • To support the financial needs of family and others
  • A place to feel welcomed, to belong
  • Building self-confidence
  • Ambition
  • Helping others — nursing, teaching, the ministry,Β  the law
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists
Making films offers well-paid work to thousands in the industry, from grips and gaffers to CGI specialists

I’m endlessly fascinated by work. Maybe because I grew up in a family where no one had “a job” — with a paid vacation or sick days or a pension or raises. My father was a film-maker, my mother a journalist and my stepmother wrote for television.

All the money earned in our home came from our individual, independent creative efforts.

No wonder I, too, work for myself as a full-time freelance writer, editor, writing teacher and writing coach.

Any story focused on business, labor practices, unions, wages, the Fight for $15 — to raise fast food wages to $15/hour here in the U.S. — gets my attention.

Corner stores are a part of the economy, too
Corner stores are a part of the economy, too

One of the books I admire is by MIT professor Zeynep Ton who studied five retailers who actually pay well and earn good profits, called The Good Jobs Strategy. Another, an early precursor of the current interest in more ethical garment production, is Where Am I Wearing by Kelsey Timmerman.

I’ve been working at home since losing my last staff job, at the New York Daily News, (then the nation’s 6th largest daily newspaper), in the summer of 2006. It was not a happy place to work, its unofficial motto, “Sink or Swim.” I don’t regret the loss of that job, although I miss making that income, much more difficult to attain through the intellectual piecework that is freelancing — you are only paid for what you produce, and often later than you need.

Since my high school days I’ve worked as:

  • a lifeguard
  • a waitress
  • a busboy
  • a newspaper reporter (three daily papers)
  • a magazine editor (four national magazines)
  • a writing teacher (four colleges)
  • a writing coach (multiple private clients)
  • a photographer (published in The New York Times and Washington Post)
  • an author (of two works of non-fiction)
  • a volunteer Spanish-language interpreter (working with Chilean refugees)
  • a cross-cultural consultant for Berlitz
  • a retail employee at $11/hour
I covered the unity march in Paris -- I love breaking news!
I covered the unity march in Paris — I love breaking news!

Of all of these jobs, I’ve by far most enjoyed my days as a daily newspaper reporter and really miss it.

At its best, there’s no better way to have fun and adventures and get paid for it. I met Queen Elizabeth aboard her yacht Britannia, flew to an Arctic village in December, climbed 100 feet up a Tall Ship mast, sailed aboard $6 million racing yachts, visited a Quebec hospice, broke major medical stories.

I’ve traveled, on stories, to Ohio and New Orleans and Texas, to Sicily and Copenhagen and London.

In March 2014, I went to work for a week in rural Nicaragua with WaterAid.

Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!
Our van, 95 degree heat, 12 hour days. It was a lot of fun, actually!

I love the intellectual stimulation of journalism — having to make sense of complex, unfamiliar material — like a recent piece on predictive analytics which I then need to write clearly and compellingly for others.

I love the variety of the people I meet and speak with, everyone from Olympic athletes to military veterans to a female Admiral to convicted felons. I can never afford not to be curious and open-minded.

I love writing books, diving deeply into complicated subjects that deserve, and rarely get, closer attention.

I love connecting with readers, one of whom recently called my book “Malled”, (a memoir of low-wage work),Β  a page-turner.

My second book, published in 2011
My second book, published in 2011

I’m fortunate. At my age, we’ve little debt, no children to support and have acquired good savings for our retirement. So my goals for work now are different from fresh grads desperate to find any job and pay down enormous student debts.

But it’s a very very tough time for many American workers; union membership is the lowest since the Depression, 11 percent of public workers, seven percent of private. Even with corporate profits at record highs, wages remain stagnant for many, and worse for the lowest-paid — while costs keep rising, on essentials like college tuition and health insurance, (also here deemed a consumer product.)

Americans still have no paid maternity leave and even companies that offer it know many workers are too scared to take unpaid leave — lest their care for their families make them look like slackers.


What sort of work do you do?

Do you enjoy it?

What would you change about it if you could?

19 thoughts on “What does work mean to you?

  1. Well, these days i’m in Germany working in the Equal Employment Opportunity office for the US Army.It’s definitely interesting work, and I lie it. Of course, since the internship is ending, I’m looking for whatever’s next. Hopefully something that pays well, that I like, and that will keep me afloat until the day I can actually write full-time.

  2. I just took a new job in BC (moved 1000 km) and am now teaching adult prep at the college level. It’s been interesting and somewhat daunting, too.

    I liked reading your list. In my case, finding job satisfaction together with an appropriate salary was at the top. Thinking about why we work is important. My new job is also in an area that promotes a healthier lifestyle and that was also at the top of the list.

    Good post. πŸ™‚

    1. Wow…big change for you. Congrats!

      I agree — balancing life/income is a challenge. NY residents have the longest daily commutes of anyone in the U.S. — Jose used to lose 2 hrs every day going into Manhattan. Now we both freelance from home and are much happier as a result, even with an insecure income.

  3. debra

    started at U of Toronto determined to be an archeologist…ended up on Bay Street as FX trader….in response to my answer to my mother-in-law’s question of why I continue to work at my age (59 and because I like to work), just yesterday in fact, said I continued to work because I had to. He’s an artist — we need the benefits I get; we have 3 children — two of whom we help out. Oh, and did I mention he’s an artist. Do I wish I’d stuck to archeology? Almost every day……Am I happy? Exceedingly….

    1. Thanks for sharing…talk about a change in plans! πŸ™‚

      I also think there are many couples where one is the larger income earner allowing the other to be creative and/or take greater risks and/or earn less as a result. In our relationship, I’ve been lucky that Jose had a nice staff job until March 2015 when he took the NYT buyout. Now…freelance in our 50s. But, luckily, supporting only ourselves.

  4. I’m working as a server and love being paid in cash, having brief positive encounters with strangers (I have always been somewhat socially isolated), and going home to be able to do what I want. I definitely feel pressure from without and within in find a “real job” along with security, a grand purpose in life and society but all of that seems like abstract idealistic nonsense to me on some level. Maybe it’s from living on the fringes too long. I definitely would love to make more money but have no interest in doing work that feels stifling in exchange for it.

    1. Thanks for this…I agree.

      People never believed me when I told them I sometimes preferred working retail (low status, low income) to writing journalism…less stress in some ways and you get to leave the job at work.

  5. kinder teacher – love my job and would do it for free if i could. there is nothing i would change except extending my out of classroom lessons if possible and i’m working on that –

  6. Oh, Caitlin, I see your list and I want to flip it! You filled out as so many of us do, I’m guessing without thinking of order. And yet, wouldn’t it be great if our lists could start with: fulfillment, joy, contributing to the world–instead of all the financial reasons we find ourselves having to work?

    1. I wondered who would notice the order…:-)

      I originally began it with ambition, as it was the first thing that popped into my head. I keep trying to make $$$$$ the most essential but it never is. If I am bored or under-challenged or micro-managed, there’s no paycheck big enough to compensate.

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  8. Binod Mairta

    Thanks for sharing it. I too have changed job so many times and have worked in so many fields, sometimes, I myself find it difficult to believe that I have lived these lives. But these changes do teach us a lot.

  9. rwh

    I am one of the people you interviewed for Malled (a fun experience, BTW!) and things have changed a lot since then for me. I was a happy retail worker and a (very) small business owner then. Now I work as a Business Development Manager for a top scientific company, covering a large territory. I earn a lot more money, arguably have more respect in my current field, and am using my (over) education. But I miss those days a lot. The micromanagement, unreasonable expectations, pressure and almost constant travel are difficult. I am hoping that in time I will better fit into this corporate world, but if I am honest, I don’t think that will happen. I miss the freedom to get to know my customers on a more personal level and the opportunity to try things that might fail but might not. Though a business owner is never off, I miss the time I could choose to do things I wanted without having to worry about justifying my time to anyone else. As the main wage earner in my family, with 3 young adults, I am in a better space financially now. I am building retirement savings, too (something that’s very difficult when you own a small business). When the kids are all on their own, and my retirement account is larger, I hope I can make another big change.

    1. Reba! So cool to hear from you….Thank you for commenting.

      Sorry to hear you’re not loving life as a corporate warrior. I think it suits some people, but many not. But we do what we have to do. πŸ™‚

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