The Mosaic Economy – Career Exploration & “Telling Stories”

Telling Stories  

When I was in college I attended a retirement party for an economics professor, a woman who had entered the economics field when it was unusual for women to do so. “I knew I wanted to be an economist,” she explained, “when I was a little girl and traveled with my family. Whenever we went through a town I would ask ‘I wonder what people do for a living here?’”

Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence MA

By telling stories, looking at history and digging into economic statistics, we get a fresh look into jobs, career values and career paths. The concept of a mosaic economy suggests the many ways that different bits and pieces come together to make a coherent whole.

She would have observed that some towns were surrounded by sprawling farms, with a grain mill or feed store in the center of town; other towns had a mill in the town center, with mill worker housing circled around; other towns had a stately courthouse and busy retail district; other towns might have a college or university that provided the economic focal point.

Now, several decades later, in many towns and cities, the visual cues of farms and mills may no longer provide an answer, and instead the question calls for gathering individual stories, clues from history, statistics and other analyses to get a picture of what people do for a living.

Early in the 1980s I was teaching economics in a local two-year college, and took a group of young college-aged women on a tour of the Lowell Heritage Park, in Lowell, Massachusetts, a park that celebrates the history of Lowell’s textile mills and canals. The tour was part of a unit on economic history, an exploration of the long-term evolution of the U.S. economy from agriculture to manufacturing to a service-oriented economy.

As part of the economic history unit, I had presented statistics showing that in the late 1700s and early 1800s when the country was new, about four out of five workers in the United States worked in agriculture. Relatively few worked in manufacturing and relatively few were in service sector jobs – with teachers, doctors, ministers and shopkeepers as examples. As the industrial revolution began in the early 1800s, the number of people working in agriculture decreased, reflecting rising agricultural productivity, while the number working in both manufacturing and services increased. Manufacturing employment as a percent of total employment peaked in the 1920s. Throughout the rest of the century, employment in manufacturing began to give way to more service-sector employment, and by the 1980s when I was teaching this class, and even more so now, the majority of workers in the United States worked in service-sector jobs.

The Lowell Offering was a publication by and for the Lowell "Mill Girls" -- the first generation of workers in Lowell's factories.

The Lowell Offering was a publication by and for the Lowell “Mill Girls” — the first generation of workers in Lowell’s factories.

During the Lowell mill tour, the tour guide explained that when the mills first opened, they employed a generation of “mill girls” who came from New England farms. The mill girls were young women who were not needed on their family farms any more in an era of increasing farm productivity, and were sent, or went seeking adventure, to the brand-new mills of Lowell to work. There, they lived in dormitories and participated in book clubs, discussion groups and other cultural events in the evening, after working for twelve hours or more each day in the mills.

“They were our age!” my students exclaimed in amazement, as we toured the dormitories and heard the guide retell their stories.

A generation later, the tour guide went on to explain, the mill workers were mostly immigrants from Ireland, Italy, Greece and other parts of Europe, marking a new chapter in industrial history. We heard about the struggles of mill workers for better pay, hours and working conditions and about the technology shifts that helped the mills to thrive and later to decline. Lowell now has relatively few mills, but has a thriving arts culture, several minor league sports teams, proximity to high tech companies and an eclectic mix of other jobs.

The story of the Lowell mill girls energized our subsequent classroom discussions of economic history, providing a  frame for understanding the way job markets shift from one decade to the next.

What stories do you see in your local, state and national economy?   You may see an eclectic mix of jobs in technology, arts and culture, health, education, restaurants and retail trade.  You may see a revitalization of manufacturing and production.  You may see a rediscovery of artistanal production and organic methods of agriculture.  In a mosaic economy, a diverse set of jobs come together to create an economic picture, just as different colorful bits and pieces of ceramic come together in a mosaic to make a coherent whole. The idea of a mosaic suggests that it is always possible to look at the economy in different ways, allowing different pictures and stories to emerge.


The Mosaic Economy looks at the way different pieces come together, like the pieces of a mosaic, to create a mosaic of jobs and opportunities.  The emphasis is on the real, sometimes less-than-perfect, paths that people take to create their careers, the values that shape people’s careers, and the constant flow of discovery and re-discovery of different types of work. 

One emphasis in this book is on “telling stories” — using real stories about people and their jobs, along with statistics, history and other analysis to take a fresh look at the job market.

Link to The Mosaic Economy (ebook) on Amazon
Link to The Mosaic Economy (paperback) through Harvard Bookstore

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