WorkingWorking by Studs Terkel

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

They ask me if it’s true that when we bury somebody we dig ‘em out in four, five years and replace ‘em with another one. I tell ‘em no. When these people is buried, he’s buried here for life.

—Elmer Ruiz, Gravedigger

It is not really accurate to call Terkel the “author” of this book. The real authors are the 133 subjects of Terkel’s interviews. Terkel serves as a stenographer and redactor, recording interviews and editing them into readable format. This is no mean feat, of course. The ability to get everyday people to open up and share their private thoughts is an uncommon skill. And considering how messy, faltering, and scatterbrained most ordinary speech is, rare talent is required to edit it into readable form while preserving the subject’s voice. Terkel is the ideal person for this task, able to ask probing but open-ended questions, creating interviews that follow the train of the subject’s thoughts without straying off topic. The result is a panoramic view of people and professions, encompassing nearly every imaginable attitude towards work, representing a wide swath of the public without reducing variation to a single narrative.

Books like this are especially valuable, considering how prone we are to taking work for granted. Work, as an institution, is a fairly recent phenomenon, the child of the Industrial Revolution. Back when the vast majority of the populace were farmers, “work” did not exist. Farmers work very hard, of course, but the rhythm of their work is dictated by the seasons; there are no set hours and no salary. The way we make our living is radically different from how our ancestors did; and yet work, nowadays, seems like the most natural thing in the world, more eternal and more important than marriage. This lack of scrutiny is especially striking, considering that our jobs dictate our social status, consume most of our time, and are usually the number one thing we complain about.

So what are the common themes of these interviews? One is boredom. Adam Smith famously proclaimed the economic benefits of the division of labor, which allows workers to be orders of magnitude more productive by dividing up tasks. But Smith was also wary of the dangers of this division:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Well, as Terkel shows, this is not quite accurate. Even the workers who have worked their whole lives doing very repetitive work show themselves thoughtful and humane in their interviews. Mike Lefevre, an astonishingly articulate steelworker, says “It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” The real danger is not stupidity, but profound boredom, which is arguably worse. I know this from experience: though apparently harmless, boredom can be hellish, and can wreak serious harm on your psyche. And it is a ubiquitous malady, either from repetition or simple inactivity. Nora Watson, an editor in an advertising agency, says:

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Connected to this boredom is a kind of brutish narrowness. Every person, even the most ordinary, is radically unique, with their own perspective, talents, and propensities. Jobs, on the other hand, often require only a very limited set of skills, forcing the worker to neglect a large part of their potential and to put aside their own priorities and preferences. Thus workers in this book often report feeling like “machines” or being “dehumanized,” such as Eric Nesterenko, a hockey player:

I know a lot of pro athletes have a capacity for a wider experience. But they wanted to become champions. They had to focus themselves on their one thing completely. His primary force when he becomes champion is his ego trip, his desire to excel, to be somebody special. To some degree, he must dehumanize himself.

Some workers feel dissatisfied because of the disconnect between their jobs and the rest of their lives. Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative, says: “I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to.” Other workers lament the separation of their work and the final product, such as Mike Lefevre: “It’s hard to take pride in a bridge you’re never gonna cross, in a door you’re never gonna open. You’re mass-producing things and you never see the end result of it.” The common theme is social compartmentalization and the feeling of isolation that results, something that the philosopher John Lachs thinks is responsible for modern alienation.

It goes without saying that inequality—economic, social, political—is a major source of concern. Roberto Acuna, a farm worker, has this to say:

I began to see how everything was so wrong. When growers have an intricate watering system to irrigate their crops but they can’t have running water inside the houses of workers. Veterinarians tend to the needs of domestic animals but they can’t have medical care for the workers. They can have land subsidies for the growers but they can’t have adequate unemployment compensation for the workers. They treat him like a farm implement. In fact, they treat their implements better and their domestic animals better. They have heat and insulated barns for the animals but the workers live in beat-up shacks with no heat at all.

Curiously, the bosses and elites on the other end of the differential, though more satisfied with their work, sometimes displayed alarmingly unhealthy or superficial mindsets:

My interest in motorcycles was for the money originally. I saw this was going to be a big field. Later, business becomes a game. Money is the kind of way you keep score. How else you gonna see yourself go up? If you’re successful in business, it means you’re making money. It gets to the point where you’ve done all the things you want to do. There’s nothing else you want to buy any more. You get a thrill out of seeing the business grow. Just building it bigger and bigger…

In America, where our jobs are one of the main determinants of our social standing, it is no surprise that status anxiety plays a big role in worker dissatisfactions. Dave Stribling, who works in an automobile service station, doesn’t like telling people what he does:

What really gets you down is, you’re at some place and you’ll meet a person and strike up a conversation with ’em. Naturally, sometimes during that conversation he’s going to ask about your occupation, what you do for a living. So this guy, he manages this, he manages that, see? When I tell him—and I’ve seen it happen lots of times—there’s a kind of question mark in his head.

And then there is that universal blight of modernity, the lack of meaning. The feeling of being useless, of wasting your talents, of working solely for profit or a paycheck, plagued many of the subjects in this book. This was most heartrending when expressed by the older subjects. Steve Dubi, a steelworkers, says: “What have I done in my forty years of work? I led a useless life. Here I am almost sixty years old and I don’t have anything to show for it.” And here is Eddie Jaffe, a press agent: “I can’t relax. ‘Cause when you ask a guy who’s fifty-eight years old, ‘What does a press agent do?’ you force me to look back and see what a wasted life I’ve had. My hopes, my aspirations—what I did with them. What being a press agent does to you. What have I wound up with? Rooms full of clippings.”

The modern remedy for this feeling of meaninglessnes, to “follow your passion,” also left many feeling lost and confused. Here is Sharon Atkins, a receptionist: “I don’t know what else I’d like to do. That’s what hurts the most. That’s why I can’t quit this job. I really don’t know what talents I have. I’ve been fostered so long by school and didn’t have time to think about it.” And some, like the unforgettable Cathleen Moran, a hospital aide, are just annoyed by the idea: “I don’t know any nurse’s aid who likes it. You say, ‘Boy, isn’t that rewarding that you’re doing something for humanity?’ I say, ‘Don’t give me that, it’s a bunch of baloney. I feel nothin’.’ I like it because I can watch the ball games in the afternoon.”

By the end of this list, it is easy to see what Studs Terkel means with his opening lines: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body.” But Working is not totally bleak. There are many workers, often in very ordinary jobs, who report great satisfaction. This seemed to be associated with jobs that require a lot of social interaction. I experienced this myself, when I switched from a desk job to teaching. It is hard to feel isolated and useless when you’re constantly dealing with people. Dolores Dante, a waitress, enjoys the constant waves of new customers: “I have to be a waitress. How else can I learn about people? How else does the world come to me?”

Another obvious source of satisfaction is expertise. One of the most satisfied subjects in this book is Babe Secoli, a supermarket checker. She is satisfied with her work because she does it well. In the days before barcodes and digital cash registers, Babe memorized all the prices in the store: “I’m not ashamed that I wear a uniform and nurse’s shoes and that I got varicose veins. I’m makin’ an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, they’re lower than I am.”

But perhaps the biggest source of satisfaction is the feeling of helping others. This is what Jean Stanley, a cosmetics saleswoman, takes pleasure in, despite not considering her job very important: “You would have liked to do something more exciting and vital, something you felt was making a contribution. On the other hand, when you wait on these lonely old women and they leave with a smile and you feel you’ve lifted their day, even a little, well, it has its compensations.”

This book certainly shows its age. There are many professions which no longer exist, mostly due to automation. But as a portrait of work, as a modern institution, Terkel has given us something timeless.

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