the story behind the book | kate tuttle

There’s work, then there’s a job

david wilson for the boston globe

Boston University’s Ellen Ruppel Shell began to notice something among her students in the last several years. “The changes that were happening in the working world were leaving an awful lot of people behind,” Shell said. “I saw the mounting anxiety that young people were feeling.”

In “The Job: Work and Its Future in a Time of Radical Change,” Shell explores the mismatch between our old ideas about what makes a good job and a rapidly changing employment landscape. For one thing, the co-director of BU’s science journalism program explained, there’s a difference between work and a job. “Work is part of who we are. Humans prefer to be engaged in something that they personally find meaningful or purposeful,” she said. But a job — that thing you do to make money and put food on the table — cannot and should not become a person’s identity.

“The rhetoric today is all about finding passion in your job, which I find extremely dangerous,” Shell said. “You don’t want to put all your eggs in that basket.” In researching the book Shell met people for whom job loss represented not only financial danger but also a crisis in confidence. “We blame ourselves. A lot of people become extremely depressed.”


At a time when technological advances are eliminating some jobs and adding others, Shell said, “the idea that everyone with skills can then access a good job is pretty naïve.” Young people just entering the job market, Shell said, should be as flexible as possible. “Try everything. Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Immerse yourself in as many different things as you possibly can,” she said. “Recognizing problems worth solving, being able to involve other people in the problem-solving process, being intellectually nimble: Those kinds of skills are really the best protection.”

Shell will read Wednesday at a public fund-raiser for the Fair Employment Project. The event begins at 5 p.m. at Sherin & Lodgen LLP, 101 Federal St., Boston. Suggested donation is $40-$120.

Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at