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Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do ()

Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century (54)

    This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence--to the spirit as well as the body.
        -Studs Terkel, Introduction to Working

I suppose that it's important, before we begin hammering this book, to recall that it was written in the early 1970's.  It is just barely possible that the attitude reflected in the epigraph above, and in the introductory essay and series of interviews that make up the book, was actually prevalent at that time.  Of course, coming in 1974, the book falls just at the end of the true industrial epoch and just at the point where inflation was catching up to the bloated Vietnam War/Great Society economy.  Most significantly, it comes just before the dislocations of the 1980's and 90's, when the American economy was wrenchingly transformed from a mechanical manufacturing basis into an information and service based economy.  This was perhaps the last moment for some time when you could complain about a relatively high paying and high skilled job and be taken seriously.

Many of the workers whom Terkel interviews, and who inform his negative view of modern employment and his skepticism about the work ethic, are autoworkers, fed up with their spiritually unrewarding assembly line jobs.  Of course, today these same people and Terkel himself are likely to be found dressed up as tree frogs, protesting the globalization which has helped export these boring but high-paying jobs overseas.  The whiny sections on the auto industry are reminiscent of Ben Hamper's Rivethead (see Orrin's review) and serve as a healthy reminder of why industry is now willing to entrust these jobs to illiterate Third-World peasants; they can't possibly be any worse than the American blue collar workers who previously held the jobs.

But the auto section only stands out because it is where Terkel's complainers are most spectacularly misguided.  It is important not to lose sight of the general error that animates the book.  Terkel who was at least a fellow traveler, remains in the grip of one of the greatest fallacies of Marxism: that workers don't really want to work, that the Victorian aristocrat, living off of his income, was some kind of beau ideal that we all inevitably aspire towards.  It seems unlikely that this ridiculous supposition still needs to be knocked down at this late date.  The past fifty years have amply demonstrated that societies, like ours, where work is rewarded, result in more and better work.  Rare are the cases where someone reaches a minimal comfort level and then coasts; instead they keep raising their sights, aiming higher and working harder.  Contrary to Marxist expectations, workers have not become alienated from the means of production, they've bought into it (through stock options, 401k plans and the like) and now own the very companies for which they work.

Now I know that this may be a contrarian view, but I find it unlikely that we are a uniquely privileged generation, lucky enough to belong to the first cohort in human history to actually enjoy work.  It's possible of course, but it just seems unlikely that human kind has been generally miserable for 50,000 years.  I know we're all supposed to assume that our ancestors lived joyless lives of back-breaking misery, but I don't buy it.  I'm sure hunter/gathering, subsistence farming, peonage, serfdom, mining, factory work and the like were no picnic, but what evidence do we have to suggest that the people doing this work hated it and hated themselves for doing it.   It's not like these folks had huge rates of suicide.  They certainly felt no compunction about bringing kids into the world.  When we find people still doing this kind of work they don't seem particularly unhappy.  Read Joe Kane's book Amazons and the tribesmen he befriends seem to be pretty satisfied with their somewhat precarious existence.  Heck, there's a whole cottage industry based around the belief that Native Americans led an idyllic existence.  And while we may not have extensive extant writings from the folks who had jobs like mining coal, the books we do have from their children who escaped the mines (Rocket Boys [see Orrin's review], How Green Was My Valley [see Orrin's review]) are more likely to be elegiac looks back at a lost way of life fondly remembered than to be angry polemics about injustice.  Isn't it likely that these folks had basically the same hopes and dreams that we do, worked hard to try and achieve them and found something personally rewarding in that work, just like us?

I'll relate just one anecdote.  Much of my life has been centered around the avoidance of hard work, but even I have had a couple of real jobs.  One semester in college a few of us worked on a seismic crew in the Texas oil fields.  The work isn't exactly back-breaking, but it's good hard physical labor.  We worked hundred hour weeks and at one point went over 30 straight days without a break.  The base pay wasn't terribly good, but put in 60 hours of overtime and you're making a decent wage.  Many of our fellow employees were illegal aliens from Mexico and we particularly befriended a young guy named Yeyo.  He was seventeen, living in a country whose language he barely spoke, separated from friends and family, working a low level job that most Anglos would consider to be beneath them.  Did he feel like he was being exploited?  Not hardly.  He worked his butt off, paid his taxes, saved his money and dreamed of returning to Mexico to start his own cinder block factory.  For me, he has always seemed to represent the capitalist ideal writ small.

Even though Terkel has a different agenda in this book--he certainly isn't writing a paean to Capitalism--this same kind of ambition keeps peeking through.  Time and again after Studs has extracted the obligatory complaints about how much their job stinks, the interviewees proceed to explain with great pride why they stay on the job.  Here a certain sameness slips in as they uniformly describe the feeling of satisfaction they get from the aspects of their work that they think are unique to them or from the quality of the work they do even at a job they maintain is unsatisfying.  Most significantly, few people define themselves by their job.  In America, you are not a ditch digger, you dig ditches.  Like our young Mexican friend, the great majority of citizens view today's job as a weigh station on the way to bigger and better things.

In the final analysis, complaining about our jobs seems to be a human birthright, after all Adam and Eve didn't even think that life in the Garden of Eden was good enough and Cain essentially killed Abel out of jealousy because Abel's job was easier.  But even after these fairly disturbing workplace episodes, they buckled down and got back to work, seemingly none the worse for wear.  It would be helpful if Left intellectuals could finally learn this lesson and let us all get back to work.  In fact, if they'd knock off the navel-gazing and get real jobs, maybe they'd find some personal fulfillment and get out of our hair.


Grade: (C-)


Studs Terkel Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Studs Terkel
    -EXCERPT: Studs Terkel Talks to Babe Secoli About Her Work as a Supermarket Checker: From “Working,” the Classic Oral History of Americans' Working Lives (Studs Terkel, May 15, 2024, LitHub)
    -PROFILE: AN AMERICAN TREASURE: STUDS TERKEL: After all he has seen and heard, the nation's esteemed oral historian still has hope. In fact, at age 90, he's writing a book about it. (Neenah Ellis, Hope Magazine)
    -ESSAY: What Studs Terkel's 'Working' Says About Worker Malaise Today: It is hard to read "Working," Studs Terkel's oral history of working life published 30 years ago, without thinking about what has gone wrong in the workplace. (ADAM COHEN, 5/31/04, NY Times)
    -ESSAY: STUDS TERKEL'S WORKING, 50 YEARS ON (Tim Strangleman, 03/11/2022, New Geography)

Book-related and General Links:
-FEATURED AUTHOR: Studs Terkel (NY Times Book Review Archives)
    -BIO: Studs Terkel (Spartacus)
    -LECTURE: Studs Terkel  (December 6, 1995, Kennedy School of Government)
    -INTERVIEW BY STUDS TERKEL with Albert John Lutuli, winner of the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize (Perspective on Ideas and the Arts, Chicago, May 1963)
    -ESSAY: The Last Human Voice  (Studs Terkel, Forbes ASAP)
    -PROFILE: Studs Terkel at 85: Still speaking for the common man (Jeff Flock, CNN)
    -PROFILE : Studs Terkel: A lifetime listening to America (CNN)
    -PROFILE: Studs Terkel: America's Interviewer (Lisa James, Albany Magazine)
    -PROFILE: THE VOICE OF FREE AMERICA  (John Carlin, The Independent)
    -INTERVIEW : Q & A: Studs Terkel : The author and historian talks about religion, death and prospecting for stories (Jonathan Curiel, SF Chronicle)
    -INTERVIEW: Studs Terkel (Jeff Flock, CNN)
    -INTERVIEW: Studs Terkel: An interview with the man who interviews America (Kira Albin, Grand Times)
    -INTERVIEW:  with STUDS TERKEL (Class)
    -INTERVIEW: Studs Terkel interview by Frank Halperin (City Paper)
    -INTERVIEW: (Dale Eastman, Mother Jones)
    -ARTICLE: Studs still delivers the goods (BRUCE KIRKLAND -- Toronto Sun)
    -ARTICLE: Studs Terkel Tries To Stem Our National Memory Loss (Michael Olesker, Baltimore Sun)
    -Oral Contraception: Studs Terkel's Radical Politics (
    -CHAT: Chat transcript for Studs Terkel (January 11, 2000, wgbh)
    -REVIEW: of Working by Studs Terkel  Everybody who's nobody and the nobody who's everybody (MARSHALL BERMAN, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Working (Diana Fell, Votech Guide,
    -REVIEW: of The Spectator by Studs Terkel (Steven G. Kellman, Texas Observer)
    -REVIEW: of The Spectator (Elyse Sommer , CurtainUp: The Internet Theater Magazine of Reviews, Features, Annotated Listings)
    -REVIEW: John Leonard reviews Studs Terkels new book, The Spectator (CBS)
    -REVIEW: of The Spectator (John Leonard, The Nation)
    -REVIEW: of MY AMERICAN CENTURY. By Studs Terkel (James Sledd, Texas Observer)
    -REVIEW: Andrew Hacker: The New Civil War, NY Review of Books
       Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty, and the Underclass by Christopher Jencks
       Racism and Justice: The Case for Affirmative Action by Gertrude Ezorsky
       The Black Elite: Facing the Color Line in the Twilight of the Twentieth Century by Lois Benjamin
       Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession by Studs Terkel
    -REVIEW: Murray Kempton: The Damned, NY Review of Books
       A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-1939 by Edward Robb Ellis
       Hard Times by Studs Terkel
       The Block by Herb Goro
       Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory by Anita Bryant
    -REVIEW: Edgar Z. Friedenberg: The Lower Depths, NY Review of Books
       Up the Junction by Nell Dunn
       Division Street: America by Studs Terkel
    -REVIEW : of 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken?' By Studs Terkel (Don Lattin, SF Chronicle)