Working : People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About Itby: Studs Terkel
WORK IS AN EXCHANGE OF TIME, effort, and skill for money. It’s a defining characteristic of the American. Or at least we make it out to be. At cocktail parties the prevailing question is: what do you do?
Studs Terkel’s Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do — an iconic work of oral history, for which he traveled around America in the early 1970s, asking people what they thought of their jobs and how they felt about working — delineates the American vision of work. He spent three years collecting stories, and the book was published in 1974.
Some in the book embody their jobs fully, playing a role — like the prostitute, who says she’s simply “acting out American womanhood”; others resent their jobs vehemently.
Terkel, who would go on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction in 1985, hits on the pillar-like value that holds up America. What are we if not a people who pick ourselves up by our bootstraps? If not sweat-on-the-brow, rise-early stay-late, hard-chargers with a penchant for dog-eat-dog capitalism?
At the foundation of the nation, a Puritan work ethic supported this attitude. Some colonists believed that a hard day’s work could bring them closer to God, viewing labor as a virtue that made one a better person. But the intertwined nature of man and his work can be traced all the way back to the 12th Century, when we began to take the surnames of our labor: Cook, Carpenter, Baker, Thatcher, Cooper. Quite literally, we were naming ourselves after our jobs. In those days, the hope was that the family trade remained in the family, a never-ending token passed down from one generation to the next.
Where some still see it as virtue, for others it becomes vice — the workaholic who can’t put the office away after hours. For others, it’s a near unbearable ball-and-chain they hold onto only for the cash. Terkel’s subjects reveal a range of daily games and fantasies that make work tolerable for them. The waitress who pretends she is a ballerina. Or here, a cab driver who dreams of the sea:
No matter how much you love your wife, the sea is drawing you. […] A cab is just a stepping stone to a car wash and then a car wash will be a means of buying my boat. Even at my age, I haven’t given up. Nothing’s going to stop me. That’s how much I love the sea. If I get a schooner, that’ll be tops, that’ll be it. I’ll have both my loves: my wife and my sea. I would like to die at sea and be buried at sea, and then spread out at sea.
Working reveals the fundamental American frustration of being stuck in jobs that don’t feed souls. As Terkel writes, resentment comes in all industries, at all pay grades:
For the many, there is hardly concealed discontent. The blue-collar blues is no more bitterly sung than the white-collar moan. “I’m a machine,” says the spot-welder. “I’m caged,” says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. “I’m a mule,” says the steelworker. “A monkey can do what I do,” says the receptionist. “I’m less than a farm implement,” says the migrant worker. "I’m an object," says the high-fashion model. ...