In 2018, we read a number of books about the world of work.
At our Branch HQ in Minneapolis, we’ve created a little library nook where we cycle between titles ranging from startup culture and marketing techniques, to design principles, customer engagement, and customer service.
While the business-related books are valuable to the things we’re doing, some of the books we read about work tell a much more human story that help paint the picture of the climate we’re living in today. Oftentimes, it’s challenging and difficult. The world of hourly work (and, subsequently the freelance and gig work that is rising in popularity) is not easy. And, over the last decade, we’ve seen a drastic change in the existence of the formerly strong American middle class.
This brings up a lot of unanswered questions that correlate to work today. And, as we’re working to build a product that can be a valuable tool to the modern hourly worker, books (published in the last few years) that paint a picture of the challenges and problems with work are helpful as we continue to make Branch better.
Here’s a rundown of our favorite books we read this past year about the world of work and the impact work has on our lives.
When our CEO took a business trip to Southern Wisconsin, the rich manufacturing history of Janesville intrigued him to pick up a best-selling copy of Amy Goldstein’s “Janesville.” Home to thousands of hard-working blue collar workers, Janesville maintains more than a century of manufacturing heritage and was home to Parker Pens and a General Motors plant that produced Chevrolets for nearly nine decades.
What made the book so compelling was how it weaves not only the story of how one Midwestern town came to rise through its manufacturing prowess and industrial spirit, but also its strength in community and goodwill. That very goodwill, which for so long saw Janesville remain a steadfast leader in the manufacturing space was greatly tested during a stretch of the 2000s (2008-13) when G.M. brass announced the plant could be up for closure.
What follows is deeply-researched, meaningful storytelling that follows a cast of residents, G.M. employees, families, social workers, teachers, and children as they all figure out how to prepare for an uncertain future. That’s no easy feat when, for years, thousands of workers at the assembly plant earned excellent wages and a decent living -- both of which were shattered when the plant announcement arrived, testing the town’s resolve while also illustrating how drastically the American middle class existence has eroded in the last decade.
That’s a theme that has become political theatre, and has also seen the dialogue shift to a number of areas that impact how we work, and more importantly, how we’re educated and prepared for work. In the wake of the plant idling and eventual closure, a number of residents with civic and entrepreneurial ties also came together to form a sort of coalition that was charged with rebranding the area and attracting new businesses and industries to think about coming to Janesville to tap into their labor supply.
In Janesville, many of the G.M. employees that were let go from the plant went on to job retraining programs, the benefactors of grants supporting the local community college in the wake of financial tumult. The starting result from “Janesville” is that there’s no real hard evidence that those retraining programs worked.
That uncertain is a little more crystallized today, but questions remain. The plant eventually closed, rolling off its last vehicle. The massive 4.8 million square foot plant was torn down last year. Local businesses are hiring and some are even growing and expanding their physical presence in town.
Today, unemployment in Janesville is the lowest it’s been in decades. Last year, it was even the lowest it had ever been on record. While an astounding feat, the challenges remain. According to Russ Kashian, an economist at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, “The labor supply is constricted, and employers are having trouble with that,” he said. “There’s little opportunity for the industries to find a reasonably deep pool of workers.”
While a decade ago there was a flood of available workers, now there is a lack of them which could be a threat to local businesses wishing to hire and grow, or to new businesses looking to invest in the local economy.
The modern-day challenges and shifting landscape of work have created an interesting trend.
Increasing numbers of Americans are becoming a mobile workforce, trading in homes for vehicles that serve as both domicile and transport. In the spirit of the Okies, a bygone generation of Americans emigrating in search of prosperity, there is an entirely new generation of Americans who have hit the road for a myriad of reasons -- bankruptcy, divorce, unsound investments, and general byproducts of the Great Recession.
Author, Jessica Bruder racked up more than 15,000 miles on her quest to follow the bylanes, and the temporary pilgrimages of this modern, mobile class of Americans. She spent much of her journey tagging along with 64-year-old Linda May, who logged time working seasonal positions ranging from a campground attendant at national parks to a worker in a behemoth Amazon warehouse in the Nevada desert.
What transpires is oftentimes a lonely story of a constant life on the road, and the achingly difficult, long hours of work that is accompanied, many times, by senior citizens who are looking to keep making money.
When Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Maya Rao moved to North Dakota in January of 2012, the state was in the midst of one of the biggest economic booms in history. It seemed that everyone was heading for the city of Williston, located right in the heart of the Bakken Oil Fields. What transpires is an unbelievable story of the “pioneers, outcasts, losers, tramps, dreamers, do-gooders, failures, drifters, deadbeats, felons, freaks, dodgers, bootleggers, scum, miscreants, missionaries, stumblebums, sneaks, bastards, loan sharks, hustlers, millionaires" who strive to make money and build a life. Rao herself, took a job as a truck stop cashier and rode with truckers to get many of the stories that comprise this fantastic book about the economic reality that explodes from such a frail, harsh, lonely and frequently lawless place. And, while Rao chroncicles many of the Bakken's earth-shattering highs and its tumultuous lows, the area has quietly emerged as a dominant source of oil extraction. In the shadow of the headline-stealing Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, tests earlier this year show that the Bakken is ready to roar again. Even by modern fracking techniques that are required to extract oil by horizontal drilling and vertical fracking, a few years ago it took more than 80 days to complete the drilling process. Today, technology has ramped that up to 10 days.
“Heartland” is another of the growing number of books which have occupied our reading. You can almost classify them all their own -- a new genre of books that have taken a deep look into America’s post-industrial decline.
Sarah Smarsh tackles the subject by investigating her own upbringing in rural Kansas and by wondering about the toll of work that is brought upon those without the inclination to do anything else. While her book is told through the lens of farming and the damages of privatization of big agribusiness on her family farm, it also looks at the hopefulness of many others struck down by the forces of poverty -- they make do.
A very relevant publication to be reading in the moment. One in three American workers is now a freelancer. This “gig economy”—one that provides neither the guarantee of steady hours nor benefits—emerged out of the digital era and has revolutionized the way we do business. High-profile tech start-ups such as Uber and Airbnb are constantly making headlines for the disruption they cause to the industries they overturn. Well beyond Wall Street and Main Street, it's a book that makes us think profoundly about what it means to have a job and what the future of employment looks like. Important stuff to keep in mind while we're building Branch Messenger.