Editor’s Note: As we enter the holiday season, we are reminded of humanity’s best qualities: graciousness, selflessness, hospitality. But of course, along with all the scenes of resplendent family dinners and intimate gift exchanges in cozy homes, comes the reality that these things have to be bought and paid for. Economists project that around 700,000 new jobs will be added, and lost, in the final months of 2015 (roughly the same projection as last year)–to accommodate a 3.5% rise in spending. Most of these new jobs will be in the sector that benefits most from the holiday rush: retail.
The retail sector, specifically in clothing and similar frequently-gifted consumables, is disproportionately dominated by young people. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while less than a quarter of the total retail sector ages 16-24, that number rises to near forty percent when considering clothing disaggregated. Seeing so many young people beginning their working lives in the rough-and-tumble world of retail is a reminder that I, too, spent a couple of holiday seasons during high school working for Lerner Department Store, longing to buy the clothing I sold to women with disposable income far beyond my minimum-wage pay. For me, this and an array of other work experiences defined my formative years and created a humble sense of gratitude for those still folding sweaters and running cash registers today.
Do you remember your first job?
I vividly recall mine.
Just shy of twelve, I landed my first gig babysitting three preschoolers for a family on the next cul-de-sac over from my family’s home in Dayton, Ohio. The deal was that my mom, a friend of theirs, would stay home on Wednesday evenings to provide backup if I ever should need it . . . which I didn’t.
Babysitting for 3 Rambunctious Kids
The kids were a handful, especially their youngest, a newly adopted son who’d experienced abuse as a baby and often acted out his pre-verbal pain by jumping around, throwing things, hitting people, and crying uncontrollably. Their parents said I was the only one, besides they, who could handle their kids. That made my little prepubescent self pretty proud.
I had no idea how lucky I was to get that job. All I knew was that I wanted to save up for a pair of deeply coveted Levi’s jeans, and for college. I worked for that family throughout high school, along with a handful of other babysitting jobs around the neighborhood.
The Perks of the Job
For me, the work came naturally: I loved kids, the money was good, the snacks far surpassed what we had in our big-family-on-a-budget kitchen, and—if the stars all aligned so that kids went to bed on time and the parents stayed out late—I could watch all the TV shows my parents would not allow, with the remote control all to myself.
Eventually, I got my hands on a pair of used Levi’s from Goodwill and a hard-earned diploma from a college in Ohio. Since then, I’ve worked a range of jobs, including scooping ice cream, waiting tables, cleaning houses, editing books, and running a nonprofit.
Trying On Other Jobs That Just Didn’t Fit
During graduate school, I paid the rent by working the night shift at a group home for developmentally disabled adults. The residents, mostly with Down Syndrome, were incredibly sweet and served as an antidote to the intense reading, critiquing, and posturing going on back on-campus in the English department.
Next, I tried teaching, as an adjunct professor of composition and literature. For two years I would spend several frantic days doing research prior to every lecture . . . only to nearly lose my lunch over nerves once standing in front of the class. Feeling like a failure, I retreated into the anonymity of publishing: my novels never got published, but I edited books college textbooks for Houghton Mifflin and learned every stage from acquisitions to production.
From Classroom to Cubicle
When in my mid-twenties I landed my dream job at Houghton Mifflin in Boston, I reigned happily over a 5’x5’ partition in a sea of cubicles, on a high floor in a massive granite fortress overlooking Government Center, in the heart of downtown Beantown. I quickly learned to differentiate my tiny space and ingratiate myself with numerous coworkers by installing a thrift-store vintage lamp and an overflowing candy jar on my desk. I cherished that job: I got to create respectable products—college textbooks—with smart coworkers and expert authors in a brainy city where people pored over dog-eared classics on the T on weekdays and meandered through art museums on weekends.
Launching My Own Nonprofit Business
Years later, I would launch my own nonprofit organization—a crazy move in a country with 1.5 million already in existence—because of a burning conviction that during my brief lifespan on our interconnected planet, I wanted to try to help, in a way more focused than my past and flailing attempts at social work, teaching, and academic publishing.
That venture forced me, along with 26 million other small-business owners in the U.S., to juggle skills far beyond my training. Now at the height of my career, I serve as board chair and janitor, advisor and administrative assistant, photographer and proofreader. Most evenings, I fall into an exhausted heap over a laptop lid closed way too late. And most mornings, I wake to a whole new set of surprising challenges that keep me motivated and engaged.
Halfway through a lifetime of jobs, I realize how deeply my sense of self always has been shaped by the punch of a timeclock. Maybe even more than my family and friends, culture and creed, what I “do” shapes my days and years. It gives me a concrete connection to my coworkers and the hope of contribution to our nonprofit clients—who toil every day at the “base of the pyramid” to eke out a plate of food, a few bucks for school fees, or maybe even an end to poverty for their families and our world.
Now, My Job Is To Collect Stories of Other People in Theirs
As I trek across the U.S. and traversing the planet talking to all kinds of people about their jobs, I begin to make out the shape of work’s impact on us all. It’s the glue that holds us together during difficult times; the bane of our days that knots up our shoulders and throbs in our brains; and at times, the vibrant channel for our talent that lets us express our highest vision for the fleeting moment we get to clock in.
Maybe by the time My Job is published, I’ll understand better what it means to have a job and not to have a job. For now, work seems as necessary to me as the air we breathe.
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(Feature photo courtesy of USAToday)