SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Are we what we do? A lot of Americans identify themselves by their work. It's often how we introduce ourselves or describe our friends and parents. I'm a police officer. I'm a spot-welder. My dad was a druggist. My mom was a teacher. My wife's a pilot. My friend is a firefighter. I sell insurance.
Our work's been a kind of identity stamp, defining us as much as our last name or place of birth. As Studs Terkel wrote in his 1974 classic "Working," our jobs give us daily meaning as well as daily bread. There are a few signs that this might be changing - the way assembly lines replaced so many craftsmen, and that labs and cubicle farms now supplant assembly lines.
Daron Acemoglu, the MIT professor who won the John Bates Clark medal for economics, explains that people typically change jobs in their first ten years of work. They tend bar while studying to be a teacher, sell clothes or toys during a holiday season, try things, move around, and meet new people. Most soon find something they enjoy enough to try to make a career, and many start families. Commitment and stability, marriage and mortgages become important.
But the current recession may have hastened a change he says was already underway - more people living with a series of short-term jobs, instead of lifetime occupations. A study by the National Employment Law Project released this week found that most of the millions of jobs lost since 2008 paid solid middle-range wages; most of the new jobs filled have been in the low range. People who used to make cars may now be stocking shelves; teachers may now be selling shoes and stocking shelves.
How does this change their sense of identity? The report quotes Ellen Pinney of New Jersey, who lost a manager's job at an electronics company, and now holds a series of temporary jobs in a beauty salon and in home health care. She's had to move in with her 86-year-old father and says 'I really can't bear it anymore. From every standpoint - my independence, my sense of purposefulness, my self-esteem, my life planning.
Professor Acemoglu says it's hard to cite a human occupation that might not be replaced in time by highly informed software. Technology's already arrived that could soon lead to driverless cars, pilotless planes, and robotic surgeries. Some MBAs and MDs may feel as vulnerable as mill workers. So, many Americans want not only jobs, but steady, lasting work that lifts them up, makes them proud, gives them a life and helps them look forward to a future.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORKING ON A DREAM")
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) I'm working on a dream. Sometimes it feels so far away. I'm working on a dream. And I know it will be mine someday. Rain pouring down, I swing my hammer, my hands are rough from working on a dream, from working on a dream...
SIMON: Some guy from Jersey. You're listening to NPR News.