Daily grind: At work 'we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist'

Are we in it for the money or are our jobs more than just a way to pay the bills? Joanna Biggs travelled the UK and interviewed people from all walks of life. She found work was becoming more insecure on the one hand, and the work ethic increasingly revered on the other

If you ask people why they work, most will say for money. What we do for money seems like the essential but dull part of our lives – in tired phrases such as "work–life balance", work is set against life, as if it were life's opposite – but it's also where we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist. And as the days slide by, it changes us almost unobserved. The average full-time worker in the UK works 39.2 hours a week and earns £27,200 a year according to official statistics, but these numbers, like the rise and fall of GDP, don't get at what work feels like.

In 1974, Studs Terkel travelled America talking to workers about what they did all day; while spending the past two years talking to workers from the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides to the North Wales coast, I've often wondered what Terkel would make of how we think about our work now. Wages were at their highest in the USA in 1973; as the economic historian Robert Brenner has shown, the beginning of the 1970s can now be seen as the start of a long downturn that followed the post-war boom.

When our work is less reliable, less remunerative even, how do we feel about it? In writing my book All Day Long, I continually heard that people loved their jobs, and sometimes this worried me: it felt as if work was becoming more insecure on the one hand, and the work ethic increasingly revered on the other.

Rochelle Monte, 38, care worker, Newcastle

Rochelle Monte is trying to find the moment she knew she wanted to work in care: "I remember picking up a cup and there was somebody's false teeth floating in the tea! And I thought: Oh, God, no! This is just horrific!" She was 15, still at school, and at the start of two weeks of work experience at the local old people's home. "But by the end of the week, I didn't want to leave. I just loved it." Monte started caring for older and disabled people when she was 18. Over the past 20 years, she has had breaks to have children, and tried out other jobs – working in accounts, making sandwiches, running a corner shop – but she has always returned to caring.

"There's cleaners get paid more than we do. We deal with the most intimate tasks. We're supposed to support people in their own homes. We're definitely undervalued and definitely underpaid. I could earn more working in a supermarket than I do in my job. And it's not a menial job. It's not an unskilled job. The people I'm working with might have mental-health problems, dementia, physical disabilities, mental disabilities, they could be dying, there's such a wide range of conditions and complex needs, and we need communication skills, social skills, I need to know the basic task-related things, you know, catheters, stoma bags, all of the other things that go with it. But I couldn't leave. No."

Daily grind: At work 'we make friends, exert power, pass the time, fall in love, give back, puff ourselves up, get bored, play, backstab, bully and resist'

Monte gets up at 6am, showers, dresses in her uniform of a white tunic with a green logo and black trousers, and comes downstairs for a cup of tea; the children get up to see her before she leaves at 7.15am. Her husband gets them ready and takes them to school and nursery while Monte gets in the car and goes to her first appointment of the day. "I hate knocking on doors for the first time. You just never know what's behind them."

Her work days are divided into house calls, which can range from 15 minutes to several hours, and are clustered around the cardinal points of the day: helping people get up, assisting people to eat lunch or dinner and getting people to bed. For Monte, lunch might be a service-station sandwich and a packet of crisps while she's driving, or a chocolate biscuit offered as she makes tea for one of her old ladies. The longer calls of a few hours might be what she calls "a sit", where she'll stay with the person while their carer goes out for a few hours. Even if Monte has known those she's caring for a long time, she can't know what today's visit will be like. "I've had situations when someone's in bed, they've been doubly incontinent, I've got half an hour to get them cleaned up, in the shower, downstairs – oh, I've got to get them dressed as well – give them their medication, their breakfast, and clean up the mess that was left upstairs. How do you do all that in half an hour when somebody's frail and can't walk? But you do it. And then you have to work over, there's no option. But you don't ever get paid for going over."

Monte works 12 days and then has two days off. On Saturday and Sunday, she works a split shift: out in the morning, back at home in time for a 5pm tea and then out again to put people to bed. This morning she'd received her rota for the next 12 days: "I always go to Sunday to have a look because I hate Sunday. I'm working from half past seven in the morning until 10 o'clock at night." She's never yet arrived to find someone dead, but says death "comes with the territory". A month of these days results in £800 for Monte. With her husband's wages, child benefit and child tax credit, they're still around £24 short each month.

Monte calls her daughter into the kitchen. "It's terrible what me children think I do." Her daughter, her son and their friend run in. "What does Mammy do when she goes to work?" "Wipe bums." "What do I do?" "Errr… wipe bums." What does Monte say she does? "I get really annoyed with myself, because when people ask, I say, 'I'm just a care worker.' I'm trying not to. Care work: we're at the bottom of the pile. We always have been. And people judge you because of it. And I suppose I judge meself because of it as well."

Caroline Pay, 39, creative director, West End of London

"People think advertising is the enemy. They think it's a big, bad industry. They think that it's all lies." Caroline Pay, with bright-red lipstick and a plait curling around her hairline, has been thinking up advertising campaigns for 16 years. "I think there's a big preconception that it's jazzy and glamorous, and it isn't any more… And then the picture is painted that it's all men. Mad Men, and laddy Northern stand-up comedian fat blokes with beards."

She laughs. "I think advertising people are seen as estate agents. Quite slick men in black suits selling you stuff. Talking you into buying something." She pauses. "I don't subscribe to that way of working."

Pay wanted to be an artist when she was little – "getting my artist brownie badge, that kind of level of artist" – but after graduating from Bournemouth, she was accepted on to Tony Cullingham's postgraduate diploma course at Watford, the Oxbridge of advertising. "Everybody was shitting themselves and competing at the same time," she says of the interview in 1997, "and Tony was just setting you tasks like: half an hour, 10 ideas, 50 ideas, dance on the table, sing a song, sum yourself up in five words, team up with that person, you've got an hour to do this. He was basically quickfiring impossible tasks at you, so confirming that you didn't know what you were doing and you weren't very good, and then seeing how you coped with that. Because that's basically the job. The job is constant rejection until you have the right answer."

On graduating, newly made creative teams – one copywriter, one art director per team – take their books round the agencies, hoping to get a placement: a few weeks, paid between £150 and £300 a week, that might become a job.

After graduation, Pay was on placement in Amsterdam for seven months before being taken on by Mother, the Shoreditch-based agency, where she stayed for nearly seven years making ads for Boots, Coca-Cola, Amnesty International, Cup a Soup and the drugs service Frank. At first, she'd wanted to work with an older man she could learn from, and was disappointed to get a woman her own age, Kim Gehrig, but one of their ideas wasn't chosen and they decided they would never be beaten again. They weren't.

She moved to BBH to run the Levi's account, then worked freelance and "permalance" (freelancing for one company full-time) for several agencies before she found out she was pregnant. She had met ad creative Al MacCuish in the early 2000s and their son, Buddy, was born 10 weeks early in May 2009. "The day Al went back to work I was like: 'Oh my God. He's got our old life, and I've got someone else's life, and I really don't like it very much'."

She went back to work because she wanted to remind Al "who I was when he fell in love with me rather than this real miseryguts at home who wasn't very good at washing up". After a few years back at Mother she returned to BBH, where she is now deputy executive creative director. "Your job is to go: 'And that's it, there.' Throw enough shit at me and I will find a tiny diamond and make it all right."

On the Victoria line to work in the morning, she'll write emails that will ping off as soon as she is above ground. "And from the moment I get in, I talk, until the moment I go home." She tries to get home before 7pm to send the nanny home: "It's just a weird working-mum thing: you tend to give yourself these deadlines." London nannies earn around £32,000 a year. Pay must earn nearer £250,000 a year, though she says "money's not really ever been a driver for me. It's about impact." She pauses. "Money's weird. I know people who are worse at their job than me and get paid three times as much." Work is where Pay "shows off": "It never really feels like work work. Like grown-ups' proper work."

Greg Foxsmith, 47, legal aid lawyer, Southwark Crown Court

Barristers don't have to wear wigs but Greg Foxsmith is the only one today in Southwark Crown Court without grey horsehair curls. Foxsmith's naked head makes him look tougher than his wigged opponents: "I just want to get into a fight," Foxsmith said, outside Court Two. "I want to go to the police station and have an argument. I want to stand up in court and present a case."

Lawyers keep the "taxi rank" rule: they speak for whoever waves them down. Foxsmith has never refused a case: "When I start becoming judgemental, choosing my cases, it's the thin end of the wedge because somebody might be wrongly accused of horrific things and if they're then abandoned by every competent lawyer on the grounds that it's too bloody horrible – that happened with the Birmingham Six." Beyond these rules, a lawyer develops his own way to persuade. "There's a great art to doing a great speech, and I try to do a great speech. I like to inject a bit of humour. I'm always disappointed if I haven't had one laugh out of the jury, no matter how unfunny the case is."

He finds it hard to sleep the night before a jury speech. "I hate to see poor-quality advocacy in courts, poorly prepared. I find it risible."

For Foxsmith, being prepared means work days that end at midnight. (He isn't unhappy about regularly doing 60 hours a week, but "I do resent it when I can't sleep".) He is a solicitor advocate, a new type of lawyer created in 1994 who can act in all UK courts. (Solicitors act in magistrates' courts but have to hand the case over to a barrister if it goes to Crown Court.) There are around 15,000 barristers in the UK, but only 6,500 solicitor advocates.

Foxsmith is the first lawyer to have represented a defendant at every stage of a case: from advice in the police station to the Court of Appeal. Unless he's spent the previous night at the police station giving advice, he gets up in north London at around 7am with his two young children; and once they're off to school, he'll work at home preparing cases.

At home, Foxsmith reads through documents and drafts arguments. If he's in court his day starts differently: he'll commute while thinking about or reading through his cases, and spend the morning presenting the case or cross-examining. At 1pm court breaks for lunch and he'll eat a homemade tuna sandwich before heading down to the cells for "conference time", often the only moment in the day he can talk to his client about how the case is going. Court sits until 6pm when he might go to meet another client or drop off some papers, before getting home for about 7.30pm. He'll read a story to his children, eat with his wife and then work again, going over tomorrow's case, until midnight. Foxsmith is self-employed and earns less than £50,000 a year, and his income goes up and down according to the cases he gets.

When he was a young lawyer acting for the accused in police interviews, he used to ask to go to the loo when he didn't need to go. There he would look at his law books. "I didn't want to show my lack of experience by getting the books out. But I very quickly realised that actually the contrary was true.

"Police officers are far more intimidated by law books, and clients are more impressed by them than by somebody who seems to know it all. So I soon learnt that when I get to the police station, I should take as many law books as I can and thump them on the desk. The police have every other advantage, they have home territory, they control the clock... but I'm the fucking lawyer! Yeah, that's all I've got. So why should I be shy of it? In fact, sometimes, for the fun of it, if I've got a boring interview, I might let a worried look cross my brow, open the law book, flip through and then run my finger down and go and put a little bookmark in, close the book – and they don't half look worried!"

'All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain at Work' (£14.99, Serpent's Tail) is published on Thursday