What an astonishing, disquieting time to be a working person. In much of the world, young people from poor families are easily outearning their parents. Yet the pressures of globalization and automation have also left many manual and service workers struggling to secure safe, supportive conditions and to feel that their toil has lasting value. “This period is like the Industrial Revolution, it’s like Dickens’s London, for the amount of convulsion and change, and we only recently have begun to think about it that way,” says Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Often we hear about the change in terms of math— the looming subtraction of jobs from the workforce, the multiples by which the richest among us have acquired more wealth than the most impoverished. Or we might hear about communities left struggling by technological transformations or offshored jobs. Harder, in this globalized era, is to get a sense of how change affects individuals themselves.
Inspired by Studs Terkel, Svetlana Alexievich, Liao Yiwu, and other writers, I recently spent six months traveling across five continents hearing the stories of working-class people from the millennial generation, particularly those in occupations that didn’t exist a generation ago. Some of them I met thanks to old- fashioned providence. One afternoon, wandering through Accra’s Agbogbloshie market, I happened upon Desmond Ahenkora, who resells used comput