Most jobs aren’t big enough for the people who do them. Sure, they put milk in the fridge and gas in the car, but they don’t provide a sense of fullness for the worker. A job becomes something to endure during the week and forget about on the weekend. As William Faulkner once put it: “You can’t eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everybody else so miserable and unhappy.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Nora Watson, who, in the early ’70s, worked as a staff writer at an institution that published health care literature. “It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know?” she said back then. “My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.”
And who is Nora Watson, exactly? She’s one of the dozens of pseudonymous nobodies that Pulitzer Prize-winner and Chicago radio show host Studs Terkel interviewed for his oral history Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, which marks its 40th anniversary this year.
Last year, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace study found that 70 percent of the country’s workers were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” with their occupation. People were uninspired, emotionally disconnected, and not likely to be very productive.
Included in the book is a 37-year-old man named Mike Lefevre who works in a steel mill. While he despises snobs who attend college, he hopes his son will eventually become one of them. “I want my kid to look at me and say, ‘Dad, you’re a nice guy, but you’re a fuckin’ dummy,'” Lefevre told Terkel. Then there’s David Reed Glover, a stockbroker; Terry Mason, an airline stewardess from Nebraska; and Elmer Ruiz, who’s dug graves for eight years. Rebecca Sweeney has been fired from 16 different jobs. She thinks she’d like to become a heavy equipment operator next.
While not every voice in Working is a voice of discontent—a Brooklyn firefighter, for example, takes pride in putting out fires and saving lives because it’s proof of him doing something tangible on this Earth—Terkel’s collection of conversations with miners, receptionists, cabdrivers, spot welders, washroom attendants, and many other ordinary folks occupying ordinary positions paints a rich portrait of American life. Not one of them is without insight into his or her small piece of the whole. As stated in the book’s intro, Terkel’s mission was to open the “dammed up hurts and dreams” of the regular people who make society happen
When Working first came out in 1974, the New York Times stated that it followed a classic We-the-People-Talk format often employed by the nation’s Popular Front movement. And yet, at the same time, Terkel both diverged from and heightened this political vision: “For the first time in Terkel’s work, his people are present in all the full radiance and frightfulness of their individuality,” wrote book reviewer Marshall Berman. “He is confronting all the explosive psychic realities that the Front generation did not care—or could not bear—to see.”
Berman added: “His book should be a best seller, and it deserves to be.” Thirty years later, the Times confirmed that, “Terkel’s ragtag collection of little-guy monologues was a runaway best seller.”
It’s true that in recent years we’ve seen a variety of Reality TV shows that purport to document the lives of those who work as exterminators or in pawnshops or a host of other blue-collar jobs. But it’s safe to assume these shows are made to serve a different purpose. Terkel wanted to reveal the search “for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” He wanted to uncover how people pursued living as opposed to a “Monday through Friday sort of dying.”
WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA DELIVERED his State of the Union Address last January, he didn’t open with an abstract narrative of hope to win over his audience. Instead, he spoke rather plainly about the small victories won by a teacher, an entrepreneur, an autoworker, and a farmer. These nobodies, after all, determine the success or failure of a nation.
So how is America’s labor force feeling about work four decades after Working? According to a recent survey from the Conference Board, a New York-based research group, the majority of people are unhappy. Only 48 percent reported that they were satisfied with their job. Last year, Gallup’s State of the American Workplace study found that 70 percent of the country’s workers were either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” with their occupation. People were uninspired, emotionally disconnected, and not likely to be very productive. Then again, if today even big-time investors feel persecuted by the populace for fulfilling their duty of making obscene amounts of money, perhaps it’s a stressful economic climate for everybody. Things are presumably worse, however, for those unable to find a job.
Throughout his own distinguished career, Studs Terkel produced several books covering subjects ranging from jazz to the Great Depression to World War II, for which he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1985. He’s also interviewed celebrities such as Buster Keaton, Muhammad Ali, and Simone de Beauvoir. Still, in 1995, when Mother Jones asked a then 83-year-old Terkel to name the one issue America has most neglected or ignored throughout the years, he responded:
The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots—always. …the key issue is jobs. You can’t get away from it: jobs. Having a buck or two in your pocket and feeling like somebody.