Stories of Work in the Age of Anxiety

The following stories are part of a Prospect special report, "Work in the Age of Anxiety." For Harold Meyerson's lead essay, "The 40-Year Slump," click here.

I’m a very realistic kind of person. I enjoy what I do, and then from that I’ve been able to enjoy my life because I can support myself. I’m usually dental assisting. I go in with the dentist and do the operative care like fillings and root canals and bridgework and extractions. I start at 9 A.M. I work for two practices, three different offices. One office is in Mount Pleasant, one is in Greensburg, so either way it’s five miles. Youngwood is in the middle, which is a great thing because that saves gas money. I got a raise in the middle of the year so that made a difference. I don’t get paid vacation time or any kind of sick days or overtime. Certain weeks I work more hours than others. One week I could work 25 hours, the next week I could work up to 50 hours.

As an 18-year-old who had no idea what they wanted to do with their life, I did what everybody else did: went to school, John Carroll, a four-year university in Ohio, and I was trying to figure out a major. Nothing was my passion. I was homesick a lot, so I came home and thought, well maybe I’ll just go to Seton Hill, which is a private school in Greensburg, and maybe I’ll do education, and I applied. I got in and had my roommate, had my dorm room, and it was the day before I was supposed to move in, and I saw how much money one semester was for classes I didn’t even know I wanted to take—$13,000. At John Carroll I had $20,000 already built up in debt. I didn’t feel secure that I was going to find something that I was going to do. So I said, “No, I’m not going to do it.”

My cousin is a hygienist. She had no school loans, she loved her job, she had a nice apartment, a nice car. She had her stuff together, and she’s only 25. And I said, “What did you do and how can I do that?” I wanted to be secure. I wanted to make sure that I was able to support myself. So I figured out what I needed to do to get into the program, and I enrolled at the community college.

It was honestly so much harder than I thought it was going to be. You have to take three different board examinations. You have to take two written examinations and one clinical. My clinical examination I failed two times, and I almost quit, I almost stopped, but I was like, well, I have a degree in dental hygiene, what else am I going to do with my life if I don’t pass my boards? So I took it the third time, and I passed.

The tuition was about $1,500 a semester, multiply that by seven semesters, it would be around $10,000, plus you add in supplies and insurance and all this other stuff, which I never really factored in. I worked the entire time. I had school Monday through Thursday, and I worked Friday, Saturday, Sunday at Wal-Mart in their lawn and garden section. I do have student-loan debt from the one year at John Carroll. My dad paid off most of it. He cashed in his 401(k) and paid off all of our loans because we have five kids who all went to college, and he was just sick of the interest, and he knew it was going to crush us. So, now we just owe him the money back.

Because we’re a small firm, I have a lot of responsibilities. My dominant role here is representation, so I do all of our 3-D modeling, most of our Photoshop, all of the documents that are either used for communicating the grand design of a space or of getting a really quick idea across to the client. In addition to that, I have a handful of projects that I’m also the lead on. Ninety percent of what we do is bars and restaurants.

It’s ridiculous hours. The expectation is that you’re here from 9 A.M. to 6 P.M., but there’s so much work to do that staying from 9 to 6 is never going to be enough. I live four miles from the office. Because it’s L.A., that’s a 15- to 20-minute commute. I try to take the bus two or three times a week. I’ll often drive to work and then take the bus home and then take the bus the next day back. As an East Coaster, I really value walking, and I find it super rejuvenating and balancing to have that hour commute.

I went to Tufts for undergrad, and I did art history and architectural studies. There was a very big gap between undergrad and grad school. I was traveling the country giving away random promotional materials—I gave juice away for a couple of years for SoBe. Every week I’d be in a different state. While I was on the road with SoBe, I wound up meeting my eventual wife. She’s an L.A. girl, and I realized I needed to be out here where she was. I did a summer program at UCLA that is a sort of a crash course in architectural design. My studio instructor from that program wrote me a recommendation to get into UCLA.

In order to become a licensed architect, it’s closest to a medical doctor, in that you go to school, get out of school, spend a bunch of time doing an internship which is something like 5,700 hours, and once you’ve satisfied all those intern hours, you’re eligible to take a series of seven exams. After you’ve taken those exams and have passed them all, then you’re a licensed architect. I came out of undergrad with $20,000 in debt for four years. By the time I came out of UCLA, I was somehow at $140,000 in student-loan debt. My monthly loan payments are $900.

I think that for a lot of people the appeal of architecture from the outside is really strong. Do you watch Seinfeld? George’s alter ego is an architect. There’s all sorts of pop-culture fantasies about what the life of an architect is about. I was always interested in architecture because it’s about bringing together different disciplines and being the person who understands how all of them work and coordinates all of them, and I come to find out that I’m just not that interested in coordinating. That for me has been the biggest thing that I’ve learned so far—that in 15 years I will probably not be an architect anymore. The stuff I’m most interested in extends a bit more to branding. Or, if I stay in the field, I would be less in a design capacity and more in the partner capacity, the partners being the ones that actually go out and get work and get business. I think that that’s where my skill set probably lies.

In high school, I did an internship at the Cleveland Clinic. I worked with a biomedical engineer there and really got interested in the field. Miami University of Ohio did not have a biomedical engineering program yet, so I did chemical engineering there with a focus in biomedical. I graduated in 2009 and took the summer off and then went to Ohio State University. I got my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering last December.

After I graduated, I did look at industry jobs pretty heavily. My husband has a job in Columbus, and so for ease of everything I tried to find a job here. For industry, they did want people with more experience. Obviously, I worked in a lab for the entirety of my Ph.D. work, but that didn’t really count as experience, so it’s kind of that catch-22 of entry-level positions. They want people with experience, but I can’t get experience without getting the entry-level position.

I ended up finding a postdoctoral position in the research center of a children’s hospital. I started pretty much a week after graduation, so I didn’t have any downtime. I work in the Center for Gene Therapy, and we’re working on treatments for muscular dystrophy. Here we work in conjunction with several physicians who see patients with muscular dystrophy, so we are very close to the patient in terms of seeing the real impact of our work. Eventually, I do want to move into industry. It’s just the first year of my postdoc, so we’ll see.

People tend to come in between 7 and 9 A.M. and leave accordingly. Depending on what’s going on, I’ve had later nights. It is definitely overwhelming at times, but overall I love it. It’s great here. For the most part, I’d say it was what I was expecting. Luckily, my husband is in a comfortable position. He is in finance for a clothing company. He certainly works his butt off. We actually just bought our first house, so we’re in the process of leaving the renting world and moving toward a mortgage. But I’m also very much a saver and a budgeter, so we’re OK. I also don’t have any debt from school.

My dad is a Ph.D. in chemistry and owns his own consulting company, and my mom studied chemistry in undergrad but works as an administrative assistant. Both of my parents are from South America. I’d like to think my life will be pretty similar to theirs. My husband and I want to have kids. Work-life balance is extremely important, so hopefully my husband will not be working 12-hour days. I actually read an article saying that my generation is the first that is not going to be doing better than our parents. I’d like to think that I can take the level that my parents started at and 
move up with it.

After high school, I wanted to go to community college in Morrilton, Arkansas, just to give it a try. I had a full scholarship there. But they offered me full tuition at Arkansas Tech, too, so my parents were like, “Give it a shot at a four-year school instead.” I signed up late for Tech, and I just had to pick a major at random, so I chose computer sciences. I walked into class, and they wrote binary-number code on the board. The guy was like, “I’m not going to go into binary code. Everybody knows all of this.” Everybody just giggled, like, “Oh, yeah.” I was just like, “This is a bad idea.” I kind of got discouraged. I just stopped showing up.

After about half a semester, I left that and went to work for Arkansas Electric, building substations. After about six months of that, there were enough substations built so they laid our crew off. That’s when I got my first electrical job at the Van Buren County hospital when they were building it, and so I did that for a year. Then I got done with that job and helped them lay tiles and stuff.

When that work was finished, I went back to school at ITT Technical Institute in Little Rock and got an associate’s in electronic engineering. I saw all the commercials and stuff. I got in there to apply, and they’re like, “Oh, you scored the highest on this entrance test of anybody that’s come through here in the last couple of years! You’ll be perfect for this program.” Just kind of muled me along a little bit and talked me a little bit more into it. That turned out to be a disaster.

I borrowed for all of the tuition. The admissions lady had told me, “People pay like $150, $200 a month. You’ll be paying on student loans the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter.” After I graduated in 2006, I started getting the bills. They let a 21-year-old kid get a $47,000 loan just on his own, hardly no credit, no credit at all. I could never afford the $600--something a month payments. I negotiated with them, and now my payments are about $315 a month.

ITT didn’t really prepare me for the work. All the equipment was outdated. You’d do the study guide in class, and you just had to remember what the answers were for the quiz. I was placed in a job at an alarm company that was making like $10 an hour. Nobody else I worked with had a degree. I wound up being poorer coming out of college than I was going in, and it’s stayed that way ever since I graduated. If I wouldn’t have gone there, if I had just stayed being an electrician, I’d be a lot better off and have no debt.

Now I work at Kazi Electrical in Clinton. It’s fun. Sometimes when I’m crawling in attics and under houses and stuff—and it’s hot and nasty and dirty—it’s not fun. But I really do like service work. My girlfriend will be graduating school next year with her RN, and so, we want to move somewhere else when she’s done. I was in Seattle for a week earlier this year for a job training and loved it up there. Everybody told me that I needed to come down to Oregon. They’re like, “You’d love Portland. You’ve got the big beard. You look like a Portlandian.”

I’ve been involved with teaching, tutoring, and working with youths since I was about 11. I was in the Bay Area, in a small town called East Palo Alto. Even though it borders Stanford University, it wasn’t a town that was very affluent, and it wasn’t a town that people paid attention to insofar as providing programs and educational support. My little brother was in special education, and my mom would go to his class every single day and notice all these things that were going horribly wrong: classes that were too large, teachers who weren’t doing what they needed to do. She worked a long time to make things better. Seeing my mother advocate for my brother but also for other kids made me fall in love with the thought of teaching and working with kids.

I got scholarships to go to Pomona College in Claremont, California. I had a lot of people push me toward Ph.D. programs and law programs, and for a long time I worried that mentors felt like I let them down. Their questions were, “How did you come from a poor neighborhood and go to these great universities, and do so well at these universities, and win all these awards and then become a teacher?” The assumption was that if you are a black kid who made it to great colleges, you should not waste your time becoming something that anyone could become. You should spend your time becoming something that’s extraordinary. Teachers aren’t seen as extraordinary.

I got my master’s degree at Stanford in education and taught for two years at a charter school in California for $52,000 a year. Then in 2010, I moved to Brooklyn and started teaching history at another charter school. The first year my salary was $65,000, and thereafter it was $70,000. There is a hiring freeze for history teachers in New York City, so there’s no way for me to teach at a traditional public school here. Last year, I taught in East New York at a charter school designed for over-age, under-credit kids—kids who have been in and out of juvenile facilities, in and out of shelters and other social systems and programs. My salary was $65,000, and then I had a stipend on top, so it evened out to about $72,000. The bureaucracy of the school and the lack of transparency were difficult, and the inability of the administration to respond to the needs of kids was exhausting. Teachers would see the holes in the administration’s duties and fill them to make sure each kid has what he needs, even though you know it’s not your job and you don’t have the time to do it and attend to your personal needs. 

I have student loans, but I’m very lucky because I got scholarships. I have $20,000 in interest-free loans I pay back to Pomona College. That’s $200 a month. I took out about $9,000 in loans from Stanford. In total, I have about $30,000 worth of loans, and they should be paid off in the next two years.

I was preparing to teach again this year, but this opportunity arose to develop curriculum and work with teachers on how to integrate technology for both traditional public schools and charter schools. The salary is $80,000. I’m going to help develop some curriculum around social studies, work with social-studies and English teachers at schools to help them know their curriculum, and figure out how to improve their teaching. I’m going to help them use Google apps to compile data and use these tools to make their days easier. Instead of inputting things into a grade book, they’ll be able to put in student scores in a Google app and then use the same system to generate a letter for parents, a letter for students, archive the information, and then share it among a wide cross section of people at the school level or at the district level.

I grew up in Denver, Colorado, where my dad is a geriatrician. I didn’t know I was going to do exactly what he did, but it turned out that way. I was really good at science, and I’m like, “Well I’m good at this, and I like it, and I like talking to people, so I’m going to go into medicine.” In medical school, I wanted a well-rounded bit of everything, and I was a little bit indecisive about what field within primary care I liked most, so I just decided to do family medicine.

My parents helped with most of college but couldn’t cover graduate education. Med school was on me, which meant I took out tuition and my living expenses. It was about $60,000 a year for four years, so it was a little more than $200,000. The year I started, they increased the interest rate, so most of my loans were at about 7 percent, which is huge. My husband is a different situation. His single mom died when he was young, but she had a trust fund for him that covered about two years of medical school. There was a house attached to the trust, and we sold it. Along with some money my husband received when his grandparents passed while we were in residency, the money allowed us to pay off all but about $55,000 of our loans. Honestly, I am really grateful for this but also sad that our financial stability came because of my husband’s loss. This was also crucial because it used to be that your interest on your loans didn’t start accruing until after residency. Now, it starts the second you graduate medical school. So if you aren’t paying off loans while in residency, you go into forbearance, which is expensive.

Residency is cheap labor. They have changed it a lot in the last ten years. They’ve put in restrictions on how much residents can work. You can’t work more than 80 hours in a week on average. They have restricted the amount of hours an intern can work in a row to less than 16, and theoretically no resident is supposed to be in charge of patient care for longer than 24 hours straight. It isn’t really feasible for many residencies to comply with all this and still train doctors and take care of patients.

I quickly realized that I loved geriatrics, which falls under primary care. It is actually the most needed of all the specialties and is a specialty that has very high job satisfaction. I chose to do an extra year, where I get paid like a resident, in geriatrics. The trouble is, when you’re in primary care, your work is really never done. You have to do work from home, especially with all of these electronic medical records, which is a huge change for primary-care doctors in the last couple of years. There’s good and bad things about it, but the bottom line is that it seriously increases our work. Documenting and paperwork take time, and lots of it, but you are not paid for that time. They pay you for seeing patients in person. In primary care this comes at a cost to patients, because docs have to churn out visits to make ends meet. In geriatrics, it is frustrating because the system doesn’t recognize the hours you give in family meetings, chart review, and attention to detail that you can’t get from “seeing” a patient, particularly if they have memory loss or are unable to communicate. So while I love geriatrics, I can see why new doctors who have a debt burden like I initially did would opt out of it.

I’m not getting paid like a doctor yet. Nor is my husband, because he’s still a resident too. Starting out as a geriatrician, my expected salary is between $100,000 and $200,000. Starting at $200,000 would be really amazing for a primary-care physician. It doesn’t really happen, though, unless I wanted to work like I was a resident. And I don’t—I’m a mom too.

My dad just turned 57 and still works. Primary-care physicians don’t really retire, because most are passionate about caring for their patients and frequently can’t afford to. I don’t think my dad had a huge salary throughout—it’s always been kind of the same until recently when he sold the practice he worked years to build—but he didn’t have the debt burden at all. Medical school was relatively free for him. My parents struggled to make ends meet with four kids, but there was never this “Oh my gosh, I have to get out of debt, I have to get out of debt.”

I work for Klassen and Son Enterprises. It’s a small renovation, remodeling, and addition company. Basically, I work for this guy Harvey Klassen. Been with them for about three years now. I went to school in New York for graphic design. I made it three and a half years through and kind of burned myself out. I came back here, and I was just kind of at my folks’ house, laying around and not really doing anything and mooching drinks off friends whenever we went out. I’m living at home right now. I’ve been actively looking for a place to move to for a month or so now.

When I first came in I was sweep man—which means I was keeping the job site clean—and cut man, where people were yelling measurements at me, and I was cutting two-by-fours. I didn’t know anything, but I picked it up as I went along. The world of tools is a vast, vast universe, but the stuff we use is all pretty simple, though there’s some heavy-duty stuff, like your circular saws. The most important part is getting used to it. We’ve got a young guy with us now basically doing what I was doing a couple of years ago—sweeping out, cutting—you can see he’s uncomfortable with the saw. I’m sure I was the same way. You’re worried the entire time that it’s going to kick back on you.

We were framing a wall once, and three or four of us were lifting it up and there was a nail loose and it kind of gashed my hand. It was stitches-worthy, but I wasn’t screaming holy mercy. There’s workman’s comp for while I’m at work, but I don’t get health insurance. Right now I make $15 an hour. My company is not union. Most of the smaller construction companies aren’t. When I started I was probably at $10 or $11, and I’ve been getting a buck raise pretty regularly. Though, if you ask me, I should be getting paid more, but that’s just the way it is right now till I ask for a raise. And if there’s not work, there’s not work, and we don’t get paid. The union guys, they’re all coming from making $25, $26, $27 an hour and getting benefits. They come to work for Harvey, and they’re not guaranteed 40 hours a week, and they’re taking a pretty sizable pay cut. When the economy was slow, the union guys just didn’t want to bother. They’d rather just keep getting unemployment and wait until they get some more union work.

Generally spring and summer are busy season. It slows down in fall, and it’s usually pretty slow in winter. This winter, I’ll probably try to call up UPS and see if I can get a gig as one of these seasonal drivers/helpers, when they’re busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I still do some freelance graphic design here and there. Last year, I was thinking of moving to Kansas City and maybe picking up some courses because they’ve got a good little art institute. I see myself doing this for at least another few years and then either somehow escaping and successfully shifting into design with a little bit of side labor. Maybe I’ll try to shift to the contractor side of things. Either way, I don’t see myself making gobs of money, but hopefully not coming home quite as sweaty. I don’t know.

I started doing computer programming when I was six or seven. In high school, I took programming courses and had small IT jobs. But when I went to college, I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. I majored in photography at the College of Santa Fe and was one of the few lucky ones whose parents were prepared for that.

After I graduated in 2003, I tried for eight months to find a job and ended up working at a one-hour photo place in Portland, Oregon. After an 18-month stint in Japan teaching English, I went back to computers. I worked as the IT guy for a small disability-rights law firm in Berkeley, then for a San Francisco company that sells font software, which was my first real programming job. Since I’d been out of the programming loop for nearly a decade, I had to learn a lot in a hurry, but I was 25, not married, didn’t have kids, so I had the time to do a lot of reading up on the technological changes and innovations that had taken place. After that, I was with Yahoo for three and a half years before ending up at Turn it in.

Turn it in is a grading and writing--evaluation system that detects plagiarism used by a number of large school systems, including the University of California. Students submit their work, which is checked against a database that’s grown organically over the last 15 years. I work for the sustaining--engineering team, which handles high-level issues that get escalated out of customer support. I oversee three junior people in the U.S., and we’re hiring two positions in Newcastle, England. I spend a lot of time in meetings—I see my role as going to meetings so the whole team doesn’t have to. In the last year or so, I realized how much more I enjoy management than actual development. It’s exciting to make something and have millions of people use it. But it’s more exciting to work with five or six people and give them the tools to succeed and watch them kick butt.

I see myself as staying here for a long time and have brought a lot of people here with me because it’s such a great place to work. We have three weeks of paid vacation plus ten holidays, as well as two volunteer days. My wife and I have two boys, ages three and five. I try to get in at 7:30 A.M. and get out the door by 4 or 5. But there’s no one keeping track of hours and asking, “Where were you from 3:30 to 4?” If you’re sick but don’t feel like you need to take the day off, you can work from home. As long as the work’s getting done, we’re happy. I take the BART system to the office, which takes about 20 minutes. The child-care center is across the street from the train station. We pay a small fortune for child care—about $2,000 a month.

I was working as an online photography editor at National Geographic. It was a time when everyone was getting laid off, and I got laid off, too, in 2008. It seemed like a good time to re-evaluate. I decided to go back for my master’s degree in fine arts.

I went to Arizona State University to a three-year program. I took out probably $45,000 in loans—I didn’t have any savings going into grad school, but I was able to have school paid for with grants and scholarships and working as a teacher. But three years of just living expenses, they definitely add up.

One thing that was great about the school I went to is that you’re able to teach the whole time you’re there. I really loved doing it, and it was a good fit. Also, I wanted to find a way to be a working artist, and teaching in academia is one of the best places to do that because it’s kind of written into your job that 40 percent of what you do is research, and that research is your own art practice.

I just graduated last spring. I was applying for a tenure-track position everywhere and so was my boyfriend, who was finishing up his master’s in fine arts in photography as well, and we were just going to see what happened. It was very stressful. For the longest time, we didn’t know what was going to happen. I got close in a couple of jobs, but I didn’t end up getting a full-time position, and then he got one at the University of Kansas at Lawrence. They agreed to bring me on as an adjunct. That seemed like a good plan for the time being, and then when I got here, I was checking in with other universities in the area. Now I’m teaching at another school, too, so I have two jobs in two places.

My salary is going to end up being $25,000 for two semesters plus a little bit extra for traveling. I think we’re kind of lucky. Photography is a really popular course for undergrads, so there seems to be plenty of photography positions. I know other people who are in some other medium, and it’s really difficult for them to find even adjunct work.

Because it’s so low-paid, it’s really not something anyone expects to do long term. One of the things about academia that’s kind of tough is that there’s a once-a-year market. Jobs are going to be posted in the fall, and then people get interviewed in the spring, and then there’s some shuffling around, and then there’s really nothing else you can do until next fall. So I plan to apply to full-time positions. I think with more teaching experience this year I will be able to find something more full time.

I’m really happy with it so far, though. I have great students. I’m teaching photography classes, which is exactly what I wanted. So that makes it easier. It does feel a little bit like starting over, coming back on the low totem pole, working my way into something more permanent. That feels very much like it did when I got out of journalism school almost ten years ago. So I’m hoping this is going to be the last big change.

In college, I was an English and philosophy major, because those were the classes I liked, and then I started thinking, “OK, I need a plan for making money once I graduate.” So I started looking at law school, because that is maybe the one thing you can do with an English and philosophy degree. Or so I thought.

When I went into law school—I graduated from Georgetown in 2010—I thought it was easy to get a job. Pretty much everyone I went to school with thought that. There’s a well-organized courtship process that law schools oversee between firms and their students. If you get a summer associate internship at the end of your 2L year, generally that will turn into an offer of employment after your 3L year. If you don’t get a summer associate position, you have to get creative. I didn’t get a summer associate job, and right around the time, the market crashed.

I knew I was going to have to pound the pavement to find a job. Normally, Georgetown’s hiring statistic is something like 90 percent of people looking for firm jobs get them. My year, I believe it was around 50 percent—at least after 2L summer—because of the financial crisis. Many people who landed jobs had to target smaller firms and conduct a job search outside the usual track of summer associate to regular associate.

By the time I graduated, it was still my idea to work in a firm. I had six-figure debt. Shortly after taking the bar, I started to work as a contract attorney. I go through a company, and I rarely have more than two weeks off over the course of several months. On a project, every day is a lot like the day before. I’ll get to the office around 8 or 8:30 A.M. and work till 6 or 6:30 P.M. Pretty much the entire day is spent going through e-mails that have been turned over by a party in litigation. I will just go through, populating a document template on the computer, saying whether those e-mails are relevant to the litigation, under what categories are they relevant, and also determining if they’re protected by attorney--client privilege. For the past year or so, I have been fortunate enough to work in a sort of managerial capacity, which is less monotonous and a bit more interesting than the lower-level stuff. There are still plenty of days where I’m reviewing docs like everybody else and then it’s pretty much lather, rinse, and repeat. It’s not too intellectually stimulating.

When I first started out “doc reviewing,” I was thinking it was a very short-term gig; I kept my eye out for jobs, mostly at smaller local law firms. However, about nine months in or so, maybe earlier, I kind of stopped looking for a firm job, because I didn’t think I wanted to be a lawyer long term. I started to see what firm life would be like through contracting with firms and seeing what their associates did. I frankly dislike the work. Also, I had a lot of friends from law school who were working in firms, and the lifestyle didn’t appeal to me. A lot of my friends at firms don’t really have nearly the amount of time to do what they want to do that I have. I decided I value that, and I like my lifestyle. I’m willing to give up a fair amount of income to keep that balance.

For two years, I’ve been working for Yates, the temp agency that hires out for Nissan. They hire workers to come inside the plant, whether that is on the manufacturing line or picking parts to go to the manufacturing line. Before that, I worked for a subcontractor for Nissan down in Lewisburg, Tennessee. My fiancée’s grandmother heard something on the news that they were going to be hiring a bunch of people up here, and so I applied. Three or four months later, I ended up getting a phone call to come up here for an interview and orientation.

The lady that interviewed me, she works for the company, and I asked, “How long do I have to work here to possibly get hired on as a full-time Nissan employee?” And her response to me: Dead center, looked me in my eyes and said, “You probably never will be hired as a Nissan employee. They have not hired anybody on in Nissan in probably nine to ten years.” But the starting pay was better than what I was making where I was at. Plus, where I lived at the time was a 30-minute drive to work, and I was only making $10 an hour. I was topped out already. I have two little girls, and at that time I was divorced and I just met the woman who is now my fiancée. I wanted to make something of myself. My father worked for GM for 30 years, so the way I looked at it was, even though it’s two different companies, it’s car manufacturing, and there’s good money in that. I wanted to be able to provide for my daughters and my family the way my father provided for me and my mother. So then when I got hired and had my interview and was told that, well, it was a rock and a hard spot.

I work on the truck line. I work on the Pathfinder and the Infiniti JX. I haven’t been treated terribly. I think a lot of what Yates does is what Nissan will allow them to do. I don’t think they can pay us any more right now because they only get a certain amount from Nissan. I work next to Nissan employees every day doing the same work that they do, but I make half of what they make. They think that it’s really unfair for us. I pay everything on time. But do I have enough to take my kids out to go get an ice cream cone or take my fiancée out on a date night or something? Some weeks I don’t. Ten years from now, I want to be doing whatever will provide for my family. If that’s me still working at Nissan, then as long as I’m able to provide for my family, I’ll be happy.

The following stories are part of a Prospect special report, "Work in the Age of Anxiety." For Harold Meyerson's lead essay, "The 40-Year Slump," click here.

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