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,  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),  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.

Insanity.

What sort of work do you do?

Do you enjoy it?

What would you change about it if you could?