Working and Not Working: American Tradition, American Peril

By Lori KozlowskiJanuary 9, 2013

Working and Not Working: American Tradition, American Peril

Not Working by D. W. Gibson
Working by 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. Blue collar and white call upon the identical phrase: “I’m a robot.”

Alongside a bitter marriage to the work, Terkel’s subjects also express a craving for more than a paycheck. Nora Watson, an editor Terkel interviews, articulates this well:

I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people.

Terkel, known to be a kind interviewer, drew tender feelings from his subjects. From the self-deprecating housewife to the bitter yacht broker, he gets them all to spill. The author wrote that he was constantly amazed by the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people, ending the book with one firefighter’s thoughts:

The firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy’s dying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be. I worked in a bank. You know, it’s just paper. It’s not real. Nine to five, and it’s shit. You’re lookin’ at numbers. But I can look back and say, “I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.” It shows something I did on this earth.


When Working was released, Nixon was president. The economic climate was bearish, and only further punctuated by the 1973 oil crisis, which spiked gas prices, and led to nationwide rationing. Government spending was high due to the Vietnam War, still in progress. Unemployment was rising to a nine percent at peak, by some reports. But luckily for the people in Terkel’s book, the 1970s recession would see an end in 1975.

Fast-forward nearly 40 years and we find ourselves in a place of higher unemployment rates, higher gas prices, and possibly lower national self-esteem.

As economic systems recently failed us — A.K.A. the Great Recession of 2008 — even the giants among us, the big banks and auto-makers, needed government bailouts. The housing crisis spiraled the nation onto a downward-facing path of bad loans and abandoned homes.

The effect on the American workforce has been evident, even after the recession technically ended, like aftershocks felt long after a huge earthquake. Every job report that came out in 2012 was anticipated with bitten fingernails as people tried to track whether the economy was on its way back to good, or if we’re still stuck in the mud. Even as recent job reports reflected the lowest unemployment rates since December 2008, it’s been speculated that the rate fell because there are simply fewer people looking for work. The Labor Department only counts people who have searched for a job in the last four weeks as officially “unemployed.”

In addition, most economists agree that in any given month the reported rate is actually a severe underestimation, not taking into account the underemployed and the unreported. The number of jobs being created are still fewer than they need to be for the American supply and demand engine to roar again.

Indeed, America has been shifting from full time to freelance. From overworked-and-underpaid to out-of-work and underemployed. Many who march in Occupy Wall Street reveal themselves as out-of-work, frustrated Americans feeling the need to express their stuck-ness in an era of highly skilled workers with nowhere to go.

In the public vernacular, we are constantly reminded of the macro-peril: falling off the fiscal cliff, hitting the debt ceiling; downsized, laid off, replaced, outsourced; reduced hours, reduced pay; furloughs, hiring freezes, the tightening of belts. It’s the background noise to already troubled minds and households. The vocabulary of hurt feelings and crushed spirits. And while we are constantly reminded to hope and to change, to keep calm and carry on, even still the country seems to be in a place that quietly spurs fear while telling Americans to push forward and not to worry.

With anxiety in the gut, wondering where paychecks will come from, we take on side jobs and generally try to make it work. America is good at that — making it work. But a piecemeal existence often isn’t enough. Getting by is completely different from thriving. Enough is far from abundance.

The New York Times recently profiled Shannon Hardin, who works near San Diego. After five years as a Fresh & Easy grocery clerk, she is still a part-time worker. Her hourly pay is $10.90 per hour. Her yearly pay is $16,500.

America has not been lazy. In fact, we’ve worked more hours, but have received few raises in recent years. We’ve worked through vacation days and sick days, and as many hours as one can get, in an economy doling out shorter shifts. The place Americans hope to be in, or at least the American Dream that nearly all of us is promised — “You can make it here in America if you’re willing to try” (Obama, in his victory speech on November 6, 2012) — is one where sweat and tears amount to real, tangible success: paid off houses, kids in college, fewer bills on the kitchen table — the checks coming in to be greater than the sum of monthly expenses.


Over the summer and fall of 2011, DW Gibson followed Terkel’s model — he went around the country, recording the voices of those in the wake of the Great Recession.

Not Working: People Talk About Losing A Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy reveals something Americans only talk about in numbers. The unemployment rate is shared every month, but how much (or how little) we are actually making is usually not. And how Americans feel about being out of work is not a topic most want to discuss.

It’s a seemingly simple concept — to want work — and yet a contentious issue still plaguing the American mind.

Gibson collects many dirges from those who were in the direct wake of the housing crisis — those in construction, real estate, and loans. He calls the current unemployment rate an “infamous underestimation,” saying he believes “we stunt the number so severely only so we can keep calm and retain whatever we still possess.” He implies that the rate is closer to 17 percent, not even counting those “working at McDonald’s when they used to be an engineer.”

Alongside several individual stories, Gibson gives, too, the big picture of America’s temperature. The way he describes it, we are getting over the flu:

We crawled into the arms of this phrase The Great Recession, initially blinded then overcome by the realities of the first — and here’s to making it the last — depression of the 21st Century. The collapse of banking in the fall of 2008 created conditions for a depression in economic terms [...] and a depression that functions on a visceral level. We the people, we the economic system, we the precariat are depressed. The only challenge to the depth of our depression is the strength of our character. They are both to be taken seriously.

Gibson is excellent at capturing that exact moment when the severing comes. One woman says: “It caught me off guard. And I never expected a phone call. [...] All of the blood goes out of your face. Your heart’s beating in your stomach. Fear — it was a new feeling to me, unfortunately.”

Some don’t take to sadness over being let go, but rather get angry — toughened up to the point of harshness. Renee Zimmerman, a former senior paralegal in real estate finance, says:

I have fallen so many times and never, ever got the option to just lay there. Because nobody’s coming. […] Nobody’s coming to rescue you. […] I can’t count on a job. I can’t count on my loved ones. I can’t count on a marriage. I learned so early to count on nothing. It changes everything about you. I realized this morning, like a wounded animal, people do not want to help you. They want you dead. Like a wounded dog. No other dog is coming to do anything good. They’re not coming to lick your wound. No, no, no. They’re coming to bite you, ‘cause you’re down.

She’s not alone; several interviewees, on the heels of bad news, reveal a deep anger toward industries and jobs and managers that failed them.

The rock bottom of this is the loss of a home, a spiral into homelessness and poverty — a realm that many Americans had never dreamed they would one day touch. Scott Cooksley, who works at St. Vincent’s Food Pantry in Reno, Nevada, explains the uptick in numbers of people seeking free food:

When I started here two and a half years ago, we were doing about 5,000 to 6,000 people a month. Last month, we did just under 27,000. […] Working people, people that lost their jobs — one of the first things you lose, or you give up, is the food — it’s the easiest, ‘Oh, I only need ... I can skip a meal.’ You start with that, you skip a meal.

Most of these people that we get are not homeless — that’s kind of a stereotype, people usually think: oh, they’re homeless. I would say less than 10 percent of my clientele is homeless. A lot of people don’t want their friends and family to know that they’re getting this kind of help.

Most people, I find once they get the courage to ask for help, they’re past the point, they should have had it three or four months before. The majority of people don’t wanna be there — they try to get out of it. They’re caught in a rut, they don’t know how to break the cycle.

Push past the sadness and anger, and somewhere in there is a buoyancy we still possess. A rise in entrepreneurship is one glimmer of hope in all the doomsday news: the internet, to a large degree, has allowed many to start a business at little cost, based on their own creativity. Various thriving startup communities around the nation are becoming beacons in an otherwise dark landscape.

It’s a nowhere to go but up attitude. Entrepreneurialism has come to some as a necessity and often with the desire to recreate systems that simply are not working. Current systems up for recreation include the newspaper industry, the book industry, the banking industry, the auto industry, the music industry, and the list goes on. There’s a growing sense that perhaps we can fix ourselves.

In a section called “Seizing,” Gibson highlights those taking the opportunity of being freed from the corporate world to go after a dream. Paul Humphreys was in construction sales, but after being let go he started a small business with a food cart, inspired by the crepes he had eaten on his honeymoon. He says,

I think that with your own business, you should have blood, sweat and tears involved in it. [...] People who own their own businesses are passionate, so there’s no motivation necessary. [...] Because it is your own, I can truly say I work for my family every day, and that’s all the motivation I need to, you know, do what I want to do.

As the American story goes on and we move forward, we roll the dice and perhaps pray that our own ingenuity will be our servant. That our ideas for reinvention will lead us to better days. That everything is not lost. That we will be better off on the other side of this. Work will once again work.

We also quietly hope to keep the lights on.


LARB Contributor

Lori Kozlowski is a journalist, writer, and editor. She currently writes for Forbes. Previously, she was an editor and staff writer at the Los Angeles Times.

She has written for various national publications, and has contributed to several short story collections, including Las Vegas Noir in the Akashic Books Noir series.

For more information, please visit:


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