Bloomberg Businessweek


A yearlong project to capture the voices of workers facing unprecedented global change

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 computers sent from Europe and the U.S. Other subjects came through formal channels. In Suqian, China, I met Shi Jie, a call-center manager at the online retailer JD, through the company’s public-relations department. In many cases, local journalists sought out interviewees in advance and came along to the meetings to translate and provide cultural context and guidance.

I conducted interviews in Ghana, South Africa, and the U.S. in English, and did the rest with the help of interpreters. For the latter, translators also transcribed my audio recordings of the interviews into English. In editing the accounts, we cut many of the false starts and digressions that mark natural conversation, as well as my own questions and interjections. Although we aimed to preserve interviewees’ exact language, we sometimes edited for clarity, including moving material so information could be presented in a logical order. In a few cases we inserted clarifications or elaborations offered after the formal interviews.

All the stories are distinct, but they also reflect common experiences of the great convulsion Muro describes. Decent jobs are flowing to big cities, with millions of workers leaving their ancestral towns in anxious pursuit, often slipping past national borders to do so. The internet is exposing people not only to opportunities that were once out of reach, but also to the unsettling knowledge that other people have many more. And the stories confirm that to be working class is, by and large, an insecure state. Superiors view labor as replaceable. Speaking publicly about one’s job can invite reprisal from an employer—or a government.

These 10 people felt they had stories worth telling, despite their often vulnerable positions. To read expanded versions of the interviews, visit

With Anne Cassuto in Barcelona, Aung Naing Soe in Yangon, Kimon de Greef in Cape Town, Jorge Caraballo Cordovez in Rionegro, Yuki Yamauchi in Kyoto, Francis Kokutse in Accra, Trang Bui in Ho Chi Minh City, Mohammad Khalefeh in Hamburg, and Maggie Li in Suqian Reporting for these interviews was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York.


Lamine Bathily




Translated from Spanish by Paloma Santos Pateras are small boats used to ferry migrants to Spain. Manteros are sidewalk vendors who sell wares laid on blankets (mantas), often illegally.

In school, they show Europe as a paradise where everything is great. The media in Senegal, they never show people sleeping on the street. Being the oldest brother of the family, there is a responsibility to care for the future of your siblings. I could see there were pateras leaving. I thought, And why not me?

I was working for my dad selling shoes, saving money, for a year. After a year, I went to the south of Senegal, and I decided to take a patera. I told my dad I was leaving to visit my grandmother for a month, so he wouldn’t worry.

Oof. It was an experience I would never do again. It’s very dangerous. You’re in a small boat in the ocean with large waves, and sometimes there are big boats coming. The last day we had no more food, no more water, and no gasoline. We were in Spanish waters. At 5 p.m. we noticed a helicopter in the sky, and we all started screaming for help.

I was 17, so the police let me go into the center for minors. This was in 2007. I asked to be transferred to Barcelona. I began to meet other Senegalese, and we began to talk more. They invited me into their homes. I met them on the streets, before or after school. I wanted to make money like manteros were making money. They told me I could live with them, so I went. They were older, about 24, 25, 30. First off, they asked me what I wanted to sell. I was pretty small, I couldn’t carry that much. They told me I could take sunglasses. I bought nearly 50 my first time. My friends came together to help me, and they loaned me money for the glasses, on top of letting me live with them for three months without paying anything.

I imagined it would be different here. I dreamed of doing more with my life than

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