Parsing the language of "jobs" and "work"

A man stands a street corner hoping to land a job as a laborer or carpenter in Florida.

Kai Ryssdal: So when we talk about jobs, what are we really saying? The language people use makes a difference -- consider a job-killing policy versus plans for job creation.

So we called a writer -- someone who uses specific words to impart specific meanings -- to get a little insight. James Reed used to teach creative writing at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. He was also the managing editor of The Nebraska Review.

Mr. Reed, good to have you with us.

James Reed: Thank you so much for having me on.

Ryssdal: When you, as a writer, use words like "jobs" or "work," what do you mean?

Reed: Well, work is that huge chunk of almost everybody's day -- assuming they're employed -- that takes up an enormous amount of your time and it creates a lot of interesting relationships with people you work with, and it determines a lot of how the rest of your life works. But it's that huge block that is absolutely fundamental to the way so many of us live.

Ryssdal: And it's funny, actually, because there are far more works of fiction out there about love and romance and relationships failed or otherwise and family, than there are about work, about the job.

Reed: Well I found that out -- oddly enough, I was asked by business department at a college here to teach a class of creative writing for business majors. And they wanted a lot of work-related fiction to be the reading list, and I discovered that there wasn't much; that most stories about work weren't really about work at all. So I had to really dig around to come up with a bunch.

Ryssdal: You are a writer, but like many, you have to hold down a day job to do your writing, don't you?

Reed: I have a part-time job in the printing industry, and I've had some version of that for years and years and years. I'm lucky my wife is a saint; she's a teacher and is willing to help support this.

Ryssdal: We're calling you obviously because we're concentrating on jobs this week: the president's giving a big speech; we had the labor number on Friday -- no new jobs in the economy. And I'm hoping you can give some clarity as to how we can disengage from the extremely sensitized way that the word "jobs" is used in this economy. Can we do that?

Reed: I think one thing that happens in the kind of abstract numbers game is the people who are working with those aren't really seeing the kind of day-to-day problems that the people have -- if they aren't having difficulty with jobs, there are people who can't get jobs, people whose hours have been reduced enormously, there are people whose wages are pretty stagnant. And that's something I think fiction or literature, the arts, generally does better than anything. It tells you what it feels like to have these things going on in people's lives.

Ryssdal: Strikes me that it's a bunch of white-collar politicians talking about what is oftentimes blue-collar life.

Reed: Yeah. Depressions and recessions tend to be felt in the blue-collar world first. I spent a lot of time in blue-collar jobs, so I see a lot of people who have really been suffering through a lot of those problems. And if you're making the policies about them, you know, those people are certainly working -- I would be the last to say that people in those jobs are not working -- but they have more of a cushion about what's going to really damage them.

Ryssdal: James Reed, short story writer based in Omaha, Neb. Mr. Reed, thank you very much for your time.

Reed: Thank you. Nice talking to you.

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