Why employment matters

October 12, 2012, 3:01 PM UTC

FORTUNE — I shared a sumptuous meal in New York recently with a group of extraordinarily successful business people. As an ice-breaker, everyone related a quick anecdote about their first job. You could see the delight on their faces as this group of powerful and accomplished executives reminisced about working in a pencil factory, making bagels and ice cream in pre-dawn darkness, and teaching sailing at summer camp.

Our jobs are important to us, and not just when we’ve “made it,” but perhaps even more significantly when we’re figuring out who we are and what makes us tick. (It makes me pity the children of the truly rich, who don’t have to work and might never have charming stories to tell about the menial tasks that helped make them who they are. But that’s a story for another day.)

The fond talk about youthful jobs made me think about another recent meal. (Yes, I eat a lot for a living.) I had lunch the other day with J.R. Moehringer, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and first-time novelist. Moehringer is a self-described breakfast-all-day guy, and we ate at a dive diner in San Francisco, where he was visiting to promote his new book, Sutton. It’s an historical novel about the famous bank robber Willie Sutton. (I reviewed the novel, favorably, in The San Francisco Chronicle.) Having written a memoir, The Tender Bar, as well as co-writing Andre Agassi’s immensely successful memoir, Open, Moehringer is a reporter’s novelist. He filled in the blanks of Sutton’s life with his imagination, but he also went to great lengths to verify the accuracy of the bulk of Sutton’s story that actually happened. Sutton himself wrote two memoirs, neither altogether reliable.

To some extent Moehringer’s book celebrates the life of a bank robber — and he has taken flack for that. Sutton was an unusual bank robber, however, a master craftsman of a thief and oft-described likable fellow. I asked Moehringer about his theme of hatred for banks. He cops to the hatred, and tells of having to run to the bank—he thinks it was Washington Mutual—in Las Vegas to pull his money out after hearing news reports of the bank’s failure.

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His real underlying topic, though, is “the sadness and terror of joblessness.” As he began working on the novel, this joblessness was on Moehringer’s mind: Americans losing their jobs in the financial crisis, his buddies at the Los Angeles Times who, like him, had taken buyouts but were now out of work , and so on. Sutton was born dirt poor in Brooklyn at the beginning of the last century and endured the Depression. Finding legitimate employment was a lifelong concern. “Chronologically and geographically he came out with the short straw,” says Moehringer.

It’s not an original thought, but unemployment is bad for the soul, among others things. Moehringer calls this an “existential pain,” and he notes that there’s something undeniably “manly” about having a job and providing for one’s family. Moehringer began work on his novel as the financial crisis set in, and he has published it at a time that job creation and weak (and disputed) employment data are the signal issues of the presidential campaign.

Sutton likely was a sociopath, of course. But sociopaths need a trigger, and Sutton’s inability to find legitimate work, despite a keen mind and some admirable skills—he planned his heists carefully, keeping notebooks, for example—likely was his trigger.

Who knows, perhaps with an economic environment that encouraged company creation, an extremely intelligent guy like Willie Sutton who was charming and cunning and more than a little nasty when he wasn’t being charming might have become a great entrepreneur and convinced people he was putting a ‘dent in the universe.’

Stranger things have happened.