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

Studs Terkel | 1974 | New York: New Press

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. (Tom Patrick, Fireman, p.589)

Working is an oral history done in the mid-1970s.  People talk about their working lives and what it means to them.  There are nine books that cover a variety of themes pertaining to the work that people are doing ranging from working the land to finding a calling.

It’s not a book to rush through, but rather to take a slow journey, giving each story its due.  As an oral history, you’re pulled into the person’s words and point of view of life, you take your time and you listen, even if that listening is reading.  Some are short, a page or less, and some are long, five or more pages.  The working life is painted by the worker and the feeling of the work is present in the words and phrases on the page.  I took my time reading.  I didn’t read too much at once.  I read and digested what I learned about a world of work.  As I read, I saw that today’s work is not that different from work over thirty years ago in America.  Many of the jobs in the book still exists.  Some of the jobs have certainly disappeared or have dramatically changed with the times.  For example, the switchboard operators are no more.  One can argue that a variation of this job still exist in the person that connects you when you make a collect call, but that is a major shift in job.  I imagine that the jobs that still exist might still have the same/similar stories from its workers.  It would be great to have a new 21st century version of this book.  I would very much enjoy doing an oral history of today’s workers.

Reading this book in 2011, some things just popped off the pages and stayed throughout various working stories:

  • Long-haired Hippies – in multiple discussions, the long-haired person is of concern. Afterall, it was the seventies and the change in times were prominent in the world and affected the lives of the people.  The barber didn’t care that the hair was long, but that it was kept clean and neat.  The barber lost work because people were growing their hair out.  The cop didn’t like having to deal with the long hair, partying situations.
  • Retirement – getting to retirement was a goal of many workers in the book.  They worked hard and hoped that one day that hard work would pay-off.  Sometimes, the only hope is to make it a few more years to retire.  Just need to make it to that retirement age, even though the body and the mind are tired.  Some had no desire to retire because they enjoyed what they were doing and couldn’t imagine an end in sight.  Some are sad to retire but have to proceed.
  • Generation Gap – there are the young and the old and they see the world a bit differently.  The old see the changes that the young bring.  The young see that the old are sometimes set in their ways.  Together you get a sense that there are places where the old appreciate the young and where the young appreciate the old.  Covering people of a variety of ages tend to show where there are generation gaps.  Today, the same story can be told between the old and the young, the young and the younger.  At some point, we begin to see the young as different from us.  We begin to see that the approach to a similar situation has changed.  The young working in factories would not accept the same treatment as their older counterparts, which led to changes and unions.
  • Labor Unions – it was a time for labor unions.  Working conditions were poor and getting a living wage difficult.  Workers were taken advantage of and there wasn’t a second of personal time available.   They worked hard, which took time away from enjoying life.  The unions helped to push businesses to give their workers better working conditions.
  • Machines – the machine was beginning to take over certain parts of work.  Some workers felt that they were expected to be the machine.  The machine didn’t need a bathroom break.  The machine was treated better than the worker.  The machine determined the pace of work.  The machine was technological advances that was affecting work in multiple ways.
  • Race – the races have yet to understand each other. It was a segregated world and the races didn’t know how to deal with each other.  You get the sense from the book that people where being honest about their feelings and how they dealt with other races based on their experiences, good or bad.
  • Work – the book is about working, but this theme is the idea that working is necessary to a good life.  Throughout, you find that it is important to have work in order to have a good life.  It is important to do something that you enjoy and to be good at that thing.  It is important to feel that you make a contribution regardless of what you do.  The waitress explains the delicate and precise movements she has perfected in her work.  The same can be said of the cashier with a rhythm to her process of cashing.

As with anything, others may find even more themes than the few listed here when they read the book.  Some quotations I found interesting:

Jobs are not big enough for people (p.521).

Everyone needs to feel they have a place in the world. It would be unbearable not to (p.424).

The overt hustling society is the microcosm of the rest of the society.  The power relationships are the same and the games are the same (p.65).

Sometimes, we don’t think about work and what we do all day, and I like to tell people that they should.  It is important to really understand what you do with your time each day, how you use that time in your life, and how you feel about what you do.  What you do don’t make you who you are, but rather who you are helps you to chose what you do.

You live life in the present, not in the past and not in the future.  The past is for reflection and the future is for planning, but today is for living and working.

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