A book that recognizes that at its heart work is a kind of violence (spiritual, emotional, physical or otherwise) is a book destined to highlight that reality. It’s a book that is almost guaranteed to show the harsher aspects of an already harsh topic for many people. Working is a book that promises to do what Howard Zinn did for the oppressed in A People’s History of the United State and in that spirit Working is a A Worker’s History of The United States (as it Concerns Work in the Present Day). Sure, it’s a long title, but the 20th century still had those kinds of books, right?
Even the subtitle of Working is hardly short: PEOPLE TALK ABOUT WHAT THEY DO ALL DAY AND HOW THEY FEEL ABOUT WHAT THEY DO. There’s plenty of ways to shorten this, just for starters: People talk about what they do and how they feel about it. There. Nothing hugely impressive but it at least cuts out some unnecessary verbiage.
Verbiage aside, this book is led with a foreword Adam Cohen of the New York Times and was re-released in 1997 while the same book with this foreword was published in 2004, over 30 years later. That puts this book and its interviews in the heart of the 70s, which begs the question: What relevance could such a book still have?
But in point of fact we must ask ourselves opposite questions. What relevance couldn’t such a book have? What can we learn from the face of work over 30 (40!) years ago? Are we learning these lessons now? “We” as a society, are we treating “lower” workers better and more fairly? Is job satisfaction going down for reasons we can understand and how might we better appreciate through this historical review of working?
There’s of course the famous mantra, “Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.” But even in repeating history it’s possible to have read it. There’s no way to guarantee that the parts of history we pay attention to are going to do us any good. If all you pay attention to is the working history of the rich then you may conclude that while the US has some issues with workaholics and unquestioned assumptions of tradition, it’s not so bad.
Books like Terkel’s aim to challenge such naive readings of history. Not just of those who only see from the point of view from academics, managers, politicians and others who have built their ivory towers, but those who are too fascinated by these towers to look around them, let alone underneath them. Working tackles the subject of who makes these towards, who tends to the outside gardens, who is the often unheard of door greeter. Who waxes the car of the billionaire?
Much of this is passionately written and that’s partially because in just the foreword and the introduction we are challenged on every level to re-examine notions of the work-ethic.We are told that more and more people in this book are expressing their discontent with the way the system works and how they often feel like “machines” or “objects”. In short, people often feel like their lives are meaningless or, at the very least, lacking meaning.
The only person I’ve seen thus far are those who are fairly obviously giving some value and those who perform the value they think they are giving. The waitress who acts like the restaurant is a stage and does her best to finesse every step with her own trademarked touch. The fireman with the mouth of a sailor who exclaims about how his job couldn’t be meaningless because he gets to put out fires, save the lives of babies and provide incontrovertible value.
It’d be all too easy, even in the 70s, to fill a book brimming with examples of people who are unhappy. But Terkel promises us a bigger picture. Including those who are truly in love with their jobs, for one reason or another. Some people love the way it keeps them busy, other people find the work rewarding beyond a paycheck, some people find their line of work peaceful. Whatever their reasons or how flawed or not flawed they might be, they fit into the larger tapestry of work.
Already in the preface it had me thinking about the way that hairdressers, barbers and other service workers often work for tips and thus must be as ecumenical to other people as possible. It made me reflect on all of the times I’ve gotten a haircut or had my hair done or probably said something someone likely smirked at internally but smiled at externally.
There are other disruptions of the expected in this book. Some people who are young are not the rebellious sort you might expect and others who have/had reached their peak are not in love with either their life or their choice of occupation.
There’s one quote in particular that catches my eye before the foreword even begins:
You can’t eat for eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours a day—all you can do for eight hours is work. Which is the reason why man makes himself and everyone else so miserable and unhappy. -William Faulkner
Quotes like this point to a type of exhaustion with work, particularly rooted in the monotony of it. Most of the activities we do in a given day are not going to demand our attention for (even in my charitable case) 5 hours. If we were doing something for five hours straight then it’s either something extremely valued (perhaps an elaborate game like Dungeons and Dragons) or something extremely laborious (perhaps a passion project such as an essay?).
And that’s the funny thing about labor: Sometimes it’s externally valued by society but feels of no special import to the person doing it. On the other hand, there are often deeply personal endeavors we all decide to take part in that we see as meaningful for ourselves, even if the rest of society would likely never understand.
Some people see their work as a point of pride. As we’ll eventually see, jobs as ignored as gravediggers can amass some level of pride from the work that they do, work that society almost never talks about, let alone lauds or praises in any way
One of the best quotes I’ve seen so far (which is quoted both in the “new” forward and the original introduction) is something an editor says about the state of work:
Most of us, like the assembly line work, have jobs that are too small for our spirit … Jobs are not big enough for people.
There’s something to this notion of size when it comes to work. Whether it’s overwhelming us with its size or underwhelming us with how incomplete it can make us feel. Work either goes much too far or not far enough in its ambitions to make us feel like our lives mean something. And instead of having this nice medium we’re left with many people scratching by and looking for so much more. What else can they do?
Adding to the violence Terkel talks about the “daily humiliations” and the small bits of triumph some of us can attain for ourselves just by surviving the day. For me, as a retail worker, these phenomenons are all too read. Sometimes it’s just a sort of victory to have gotten through a day relatively intact. To have risen above the petty insults and obscene gestures that customers can often give you, as if you (not the managers) have any say over the store. As if you can ensure that every word and gesture you do for hundreds of people will always come out right. As if the fact that I’m scanning items for you to buy isn’t somehow degrading to me and I don’t think I deserve more from this life.
It’s often when I have to scan many items that this degradation feels like a weight on my shoulder. That’s why if I ever (ever) worked in a grocery store I would want to be on the floor. The constant monotony of people, food, scanning and receiving currency for it would likely be too much for me to bear. Grocery stores have, in the past, been too much for me to bear all by themselves, even when I’m not working there. People. People. So many people.
Another interesting part of the introduction early on is the idea of an Orwellian acceptance and a Luddite sabotage with Terkel suggesting that these “two impulses are often fused in the same person”. As it might be obvious for myself and any other anti-work advocate, the saboteur (of any sort) is deeply embedded in our psyche when it comes to work.
But there are also moments where I am weak in one way or another and have to embrace some sort of contradictory embracing of the world around me. I spend my money on deals I may not even particularly need but want so I can feel something besides the misery of my job. The Orwellian acceptance is all around us, even in us anti-work types.
There’s no need to feel any sort of shame about it, but we should confront these contradictory impulses and love of what capitalism has done to this economy (with the help of the state, among other cultural factors). That’s not to say I shouldn’t get the 0.99 deal on a moderate amount of gummy worms. But I should at least try to be conscious of what I’m doing, consult my immediate needs and see if draining a little bit from them into…well candy, is worth it.
Sometimes it will be and other times it won’t be…and we’ll still do it. But one thing I’ve been trying to learn these past few months is that even though in the buildup and the moment of digestion, these shitty foods won’t make our days meaningfully better. Maybe in the short term they’ll make the day a little more tasty and hopeful, but like many of the things we’re eating, it’s mostly empty calories. Don’t get me wrong, empty calories has its place and, again, I don’t think there’s a place for shame (self-administered or otherwise) but let’s not overplay our hand.
The looks on people in the buses, the looks of people who are aged either artificially or naturally (and usually a mix of both) often tell a story of people’s lives, even without a word being spoken. There are some customers who just seem like work or just their life has beaten the life out of them. There’s something perhaps darkly humorous that life is what ends life and life is also what begins death, work just sometimes helps speed along that process for some.
Another part that interested me was how desperate people were to pass the time. From the individual who metered out people’s gas, to the switchboard operator and the autoworker all mess with their customers to one extent or another. I can relate to this desperate struggle as I too often mess with the people I help in the store. I might make jokes with them, comment on their shirt and there’s even a few that I’ve developed a surface-level relationship with and a sort of report.
I guess it’s hard not to get that sort of result after (deep sigh) working the same job for a year (it turned that recently).
I look forward to exploring this piece of work.
…In a good way.
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