For his 1974 book, Working, Studs Terkel famously asked people around the country to talk about what they do all day and how they feel about it. The collection of oral histories was “about daily humiliations,” he wrote in the introduction, but also “about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
Five decades and a pandemic later, our nation’s relationship with work remains complex. In April 2020, COVID-19 led to the highest unemployment rate, at 14.8 percent, since the government started tracking comparable data in 1948. It also exposed and deepened systemic inequalities, with people of color bearing the brunt of job and other income losses and women leaving or being forced out of the workforce in droves. For many parents with young kids, particularly mothers, child care and Zoom schooling became its own full-time job — a second one.
As the world locked down, we redefined workers as “essential” or “nonessential” and played our respective parts: First responders reported to the front lines, while companies and employees adjusted to a new normal of working from home, when their jobs allowed it. But as the pandemic wore on amid mounting deaths and economic devastation, Americans started questioning what they did all day and how they felt about it.
Surprise: Millions of workers were ready for a change. Many were forced out of jobs, as businesses shuttered, some reopening, some not. But millions more quit their jobs. Almost 4 million people quit this past April alone, an unprecedented number, according to the US Labor Department — a so-called Great Resignation.
Now, the Big Reboot is underway, as people reinvent their careers and, in some cases, themselves. In the pages ahead, we’ve gathered stories on how the economy is evolving (and how it isn’t), the changing face of work-life balance, and expert advice on how to navigate tricky career transitions.
But first, meet people leading their own bold, personal Big Reboots. They’re four stories out of so many more, so we want to know: What’s yours? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Brooke Hauser
From being laid off to starting her own bookstore: Stefanie Corbin
By Susan Moeller
When Stefanie Corbin was laid off from her restaurant job in March 2020, she did what any self-respecting person would do: She ugly cried.
Then, she pushed the fast-forward button on a dream she’d had for 20 years: She opened a Main Street bookstore and cafe near the water.
Corbin, 45, is now the owner of Footprints Cafe on Main Street in Buzzards Bay on the mainland side of Bourne. For now, Footprints is a brightly lit bookstore with 1,500 titles for adults and children, comfy chairs, and a digital store on bookshop.org. But Corbin plans to also feature a coffee bar — once she has the cash and learns to make espresso.
When the layoff came, there was no time for doubt, she says. “There was no other job I could find. . . . So, I said, now’s the time. It absolutely is the time now. Because there is no other place to go, there’s no Plan B.”
Startups boomed during the first year of the pandemic, partly fueled by the rise in unemployment. And the highest new business rate was in predominantly Black neighborhoods, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research. But Corbin, a Black woman, opened a bookstore focused on diversity in a town that’s 92 percent white. The first thing customers see inside Footprints’ door is a table featuring famous Black writers like James Baldwin, and the shelves are filled with fiction and nonfiction by other writers of color, as well as those that feature diverse personalities and characters. She also wants to include more Indigenous writers and tries to buy bookmarks and other gift items from BIPOC suppliers.
“I want everybody to feel inclusive. It’s about diversity. It’s about learning about other cultures,” she says. “It’s about uplifting women in general but also women of color and authors of color. And yes, I want that to be the spotlight, amplifying their voices.”
The response has been positive, she says on a day this summer, turning to greet a customer’s son by name. “I’ve had amazing customers,” she says. “They walk in and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, Bourne needs this.’”
Corbin had been waiting for the last of her three children to leave home before starting the store. But in 2017 she had taken an entrepreneur class through HarborOne U, an education program run by HarborOne Bank. And, after writing much of her business plan on the beach last summer, worked with mentors from SCORE, a nonprofit business support organization. She started selling books online in November while she built up the cash to add inventory and open the brick-and-mortar store. Her youngest son has been helping out this summer but starts grad school in the fall.
Now, Corbin, who grew up in Brockton hanging out at the library, revels in being surrounded by books. She reads in her hour at the gym every morning and just finished Island Queen, a novel about an 18th-century free woman of color in the West Indies. Next is The New Jim Crow, about mass incarceration.
“I come in every day early and it’s because I can’t wait to get here,” she says, adding, “I’m not one to listen to naysayers. The minute someone says you can’t do something, I’m the one saying, ‘Yeah, OK. Watch me.’”
From a community nonprofit to a software engineer: Carolin Diaz
By Kevin G. Andrade
May 2020 was a stressful month for Boston resident Carolin Diaz. After four years, the bilingual Dominican was leaving her job at Bottom Line, a nonprofit devoted to helping first-generation, low-income youth transition into college. She’d applied to Resilient Coders’ five-month intensive coding program. But before she heard back from admissions, the 25-year-old and the other residents at her home — her brother, mother, and father — got bad news. They all had COVID.
Diaz and her family had to stop allowing visitors. Most painful for her was not being able to hug her two nieces, ages 5 and 1, who’d have to speak to her from a distance, through a window.
Diaz’s career change had begun a few months earlier, that February, when she enrolled in a class at GCode, a Boston-area organization that trains low-income women of color to work in technology. She’d become interested in the tech field during her last year at college. Her work at Bottom Line as a college admissions adviser was rewarding — especially considering they aided in her own transitions from high school to life at the University of Massachusetts Boston to her first job — but it required a lot of emotional energy.
The feeling intensified as pandemic lockdowns began to take effect in March 2020 and her bedroom became her office. “It was isolating,” Diaz says. “I was in my room all day looking at the same things, and it became monotonous.”
Seeing the negative effects that the move to distance learning had on her students didn’t help. Forced to forgo milestones like proms and graduation ceremonies, the high school seniors Diaz primarily worked with became disengaged, and she had to put in more effort to keep them on track.
In her spare time, Diaz began to focus more on coding. One day, while working on her portfolio website, things clicked for her. “I was literally in my room thinking, Wow, I can really do this,” she says. “It’s an interesting power at your fingertips.” In June, as the family recovered from COVID, Diaz learned she was to start remote classes with Resilient Coders. That presented its own challenges in a pandemic world. Like many of her students, she found remote learning “a bit more intimidating,” she says. “The program was super intense.”
She made a prototype app to help those navigating the immigration system, and after exhibiting her work, she was invited to interview at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, around the time of her graduation in November. The following month, she began her current job as an assistant software engineer at the Broad Institute.
Diaz’s timing worked in her favor. The tech industry nationwide shed over 11,000 jobs since lockdowns began to take effect in March 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the trend reversed in October, and by April, there were 361,000 tech job openings; the Boston area began seeing its first gains that month. Driven by cloud computing, big data collection and storage, and information security, the field remains at the top for job creation, though women workers are underrepresented.
Though the pandemic continues to be a harrowing national experience, Diaz says it pushed her to make a career change sooner than she may have otherwise. Now, she says, “I feel confident being able to do all my work and communicate with folks. I’ve discovered how to be productive in these new spaces.”
From serving tables to serving communities: Jackie Barber
By Bill O’Neill
In mid-March 2020, Jackie Barber traveled to Maine for a pre-50th birthday celebration with a few friends. The weekend included conversations about toilet-paper hoarding and potential school closings. “There was a lot of talk, but we had no idea really what was coming,” says Barber, a server for nearly 10 years at Tosca, the high-end restaurant in Hingham. “I got word that night right when I got home that the restaurant was closing.” Governor Charlie Baker ordered all Massachusetts restaurants and bars to stop serving on-premises starting March 17 because of COVID-19. The plan had been to close for two weeks, but Easter came and went, and the restaurant remained closed.
Barber, who lives in Marshfield with her husband, Jim, a realtor, and Jameson, their 10-year-old son, decided it was time to figure out something new.
She’d made some career zigs and zags before, starting out at a hair salon while a student at Natick High School and Boston University, then working in Greater Boston restaurants Appetito and Zaftigs. She and her sister (who is my wife) owned The Wine List, a retail shop in Hyannis, but when the Great Recession caused sales to plummet, they closed shop after 10 years. That’s when Barber started working as a full-time server at Tosca — until the pandemic.
Barber was glad to return to Tosca when it reopened in June 2020 for limited hours after the governor’s order was lifted, but she wanted more than a part-time job. She had a friend who was doing online sales of CBD-based health and wellness products for Green Compass, and found out the company was looking for help. “I had a little knowledge about it, but not a ton,” she says. “I was interested in a little side hustle.”
Even then, the sales work fit into “pockets of the day,” leaving her with time for something else. So, she started looking. Barber was joining a workforce of millions — freelancers, gig workers, contract workers — who string together various endeavors into full-time work.
When she heard about an open part-time position at the Cape and Islands United Way, she thought that some of the job requirements were a stretch. But Barber was familiar with the organization — she’d volunteered there during her Wine List days, reviewing grant applications. The people skills she’d honed working as a server and operating the store gave her the confidence to apply for the open part-time position of community outreach and administration manager. She got it, and is on the job now. “There’s a learning curve, but I’m getting through it,” she says.
Balancing shifts at Tosca with Green Compass sales and her United Way job requires some juggling. When she started at Tosca, Jameson was 6 months old and she was home with him during the days. Now that she’s working days and nights, she and Jim figure out child care week by week. As long as her husband “has a schedule and he knows what’s what, he’s good,” she says.
Barber enjoys the job mix, especially the chance to make a difference in the community through the United Way. She recently helped organize and promote a community baby shower where donated car seats, diapers, and other items were delivered to moms-to-be of modest means. “It was just simply to give to people who needed something,” she says, “and that was pretty rewarding.”
From practicing law to baking bread for a living: Reeve Wood
By Brooke Hauser
Thanks to the pandemic, it’s been another banner year for burnout. But for lawyer-turned-baker Reeve Wood, “It’s almost like ‘cool-out’ was a factor for me,” he said recently via Zoom. “There was a sameness to what I was doing that was definitely wearing on me.”
As a staff attorney for the nonprofit Maine Farmland Trust, Wood had a job many would want, he says, “But it’s not like you get done with drafting a conservation easement and are like, ‘Great work — just really crushed it today.’”
Working from home in Bowdoinham, Maine, during lockdown gave Wood, 41, the time to figure out how to turn his side hustle into his main job. One afternoon last month, he stood over a wooden counter mixing sourdough starter with flour and water for the next day’s farmers market in Yarmouth, Maine. He began making and selling bread five years ago under the name Counterpoint, a musical term referring to harmonic texture. But as COVID-19 took hold and people started buying more food at local farm stands instead of supermarkets, “All of a sudden there were several more outlets for us,” Wood says, “so I started baking more and selling more.”
Soon, baking became a consuming passion and demanding job. His workday is much longer now — up to 16 hours — but he enjoys the constant challenge, whether he’s baking miche (Counterpoint’s flagship rustic loaf) or perfecting his croissant, which he describes as “very fun and frustrating.” (Full disclosure: I’m friends with Wood’s wife, Hannah Burroughs, so I’ve heard all about how living with a baker is “like being married to an ER doctor.”)
Wood is hardly the first attorney to leave the field in pursuit of another path. There’s an entire website devoted to the topic: Leave Law Behind, which aims to help attorneys find alternative careers. Still, there’s no shortage of aspiring lawyers, which some experts attribute to the pandemic as well as a growing social justice movement. This year saw a surge in applications to US law schools, marking a 28 percent jump from last year, according to the Law School Admission Council.
“I’m really glad that I did go to law school. It’s a great education,” Wood says. But the son of a dairy farmer just yearned for a more hands-on pursuit. He started baking after a trip to France, where he was “struck by the ubiquity of bread.”
“I was like, ‘Why don’t we have bread around? Maybe I’ll try baking it,’” Wood says. Despite a steep learning curve and some setbacks, he loved the immediacy of baking and the chance to start over. “You put out a stinker, then you get mad, but you can learn your lesson for the next day — you just have to get back to it and figure it out.”
There’s still a lot to figure out. As of this summer, Wood was planning to make use of more Maine ingredients, mill his own flour, and move into a new bakery space with a wood-fired oven that’s being built into his family’s barn. His wife sells the bread at farmers markets (their two sons sometimes assist), helps with distribution, and designed the Counterpoint logo and sticker.
“It’s just sort of weird to be going down the street and see people with your sticker on their bottles or, you know, you hear little kids referring to their ‘Reeve bread,’” Wood says and smiles. “It’s really nice to see people happy when they get the thing that you make.”
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