In a Time of Deep Division, Work May Be the Key to Reconnecting


You walk through a crowded street or store, wedge into a space on the tram or inch home on the expressway, and you have two reactive options: feel yourself disconnected and separate from those around you, or perceive some sort of connection to these other beings scuttling about their days.

It’s not easy to feel connected. Overhead, the skies darken with “the crisis of global nationalism,” “incessant geopolitical acrimony,” record-breaking wealth inequality, and literal air pollution. We dodge, insofar as we can, climate disasters, humanitarian crises, and civil conflicts. We rush through our days, heads down, trying to duck the catastrophes. In our primal survivor’s world, our attitudes toward others seem to be shifting into an “us vs. them” paradigm.

In my half century of life — dwelling in the US Midwest and on the East and West Coasts, traveling through Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, South America, the Mideast, and the Pacific Islands — I’ve never seen people so isolated, so divided, and in many cases, in fear of each other.

Almost every day we see hate crimes against places of religious worship; we see people profiled and murdered on the basis of their outward appearances. For the 12th year in a row, civil liberties have declined across the planet. Our youth risk gun violence just by attending school, and our families are vulnerable to vehicular mayhem whenever they celebrate festivals and visit markets.

Amid all of this, we have to ask ourselves: How do we even begin to reestablish common threads between people in a world so divided?

Perhaps we could look to some sort of universal human experience to provide the foundation for reconnection. Love? Not everyone’s been lucky there. Taxes? Depends on where you live. Death? Americans, more than anyone else, refuse to talk about it.

But jobs — everyone has one, or wishes they had one, or wishes they didn’t have to have one. People living in deep poverty — such as my Kentucky farmer grandparents or Central African girls forced into early marriages — who lack the chance to go to school must still find ways to make a living.

Think about the aggressive salespeople who tie up your phone lines with their fast-moving speeches. Think about the day-laborers who wait in parking lots in the rain and snow from sunup to sundown, looking for an honest gig. Think about the tourist-site street hawkers hoisting heavy baskets of home-cooked food and shiny trinkets to your car window. They all have something in common with you: the need to push themselves up and out every morning to make a buck in order to eat.

If you listen to the migrant farmer, the street hawker, or the skinny guy in the crumpled suit next to you on the train, you’ll hear them reflect back to you the themes of your own life. The excitement of starting a new job, the privilege of learning from a mentor, the shame of being bullied, the thrill of a paycheck, the devastation of being laid off: Across all cultures and industries, we all go through the same things.

I’ve spent the last 15 years listening to people talk about work, and I’ve become convinced of the immense impact work has on our senses of self and our contributions to society. Work is the place where we shift from consumers to creators; it’s where we form bonds that can become — in the sharing of everyday ups and downs, mutual goals, and projects — as strong as those at home.

In an era of deep division, the My Job social-mission book series and online community aim to function as connectors where people of all religions, races, genders, socioeconomic levels, and political parties can find common ground and learn more about each other. Words convey our truths. Stories create bridges across disparate life experiences. Our narrators explore jobs in disparate industries through first-person memoirs of work and life, with all author proceeds benefiting job-creation programs to end poverty.

How can you connect with the people in your own life through stories about jobs? Here are some versions of the questions I put to our narrators — questions that, in my experience, elicit rich details and intimate revelations:

  1. Ask your parent or an elder in your family what type of work they used to do and how they ended up in that line of work.
  2. Ask a coworker what types of jobs led them to where they are now, and if they ever thought this would be their career.
  3. Ask anyone how they would spend their time if they had all the money in the world and did not have to work.

If you’re a bookworm, check out the predecessor to my series: Studs Terkel’s best-selling 1974 tome, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About It. Just as he did with his public radio show, Terkel uses this book not to talk about his subjects, but to turn the microphone toward them and listen.

As we lift up our heads from the chaos of now and begin to converse about our common labors and vocations, I believe we’ll regain the sense that we are connected as one human family. Your outcome impacts mine. Until then, I wish you good work.

Suzanne Skees serves as founder and board chair of the Skees Family Foundation. Her latest book, My Job, Book 2: More People at Work Around the World, is available on Amazon.

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