WORKING, by Studs Terkel (BOOK SEVEN – Part 3 – In Charge, Concluded)

Isn’t this fun?

One of the biggest reasons Working as a book…um…works is because it’s so deliberately ordered by Terkel. Take this chapter for example. We went from a boss who was a pretty conventional and happy boss, to a slightly less conventional boss but one who still tried ruling and another who was tired of being a boss. In this section of the chapter all we get are ex-bosses. And even these ex-bosses are on different levels. One was a happy boss but got laid off and is still looking for more. And the next one was part of a huge corporation but is now just a consultant and never wants to go back.

You can guess which one I sympathize with more.

I don’t have too much to say about this section of the chapter besides that. This’ll likely be a little more readable as I’m only really covering two people and even within those interviews I only had sporadic thoughts.

But okay, I’m In Charge here, let’s get started.

Peter Keely (Ex-Boss) & Louis Keely Novak (Peter’s daughter)

Keely sells draperies and it’s about as exciting as you might imagine. He used to manufacture them but that went bust a year or so before Terkel interviewed him. Now he’s selling them himself instead of running a business that makes them, he considers it a “victory” (401) because, compared to him, others “rot” and have “given up” (401).

The issues with this sort of thinking are apparent: Just because you don’t want to work anymore doesn’t mean you’ve “given up”. And just because Keely gets meaning from the grind doesn’t mean others must or else they’re rotting. People can enjoy themselves and their lives doing casual things that don’t make them much money while they live off of retirement, social security or whatever else.

The business he was helping run was something he turned into a huge success but the business suddenly implemented a policy (that is pretty ageist), “no man older than forty-five” and Keely was let go soon after. Keely isn’t beyond admitting that this hurt him in many different ways (20, to be precise), Keely goes into brutal detail about the effects of this:

I brought this branch from about a hundred thousand dollars a year to a million and a half. there was no great shakes over that. I was frantically insanely mad. (Laughs.) I spent four months going insane. Another month, I probably would burn the building down and kill myself. I blamed everything on everybody.

p. 402

This quote epitomizes how much we mean to corporations.

You could literally make a corporation millions dollars but if they still see you as a liability if you reach an arbitrary age, you’re gone.. Look, my grandmother is in her seventies and she’s still very much an intelligent and kind woman. I can’t even imagine my grandmother (or indeed my mother who is around 45 herself now, sorry mom) being let go because they “only” had 30 years more to go or so. But corporations push away that morbid thinking and re-frame it into pure cash-flow and other calculations.

And what does Keely’s madness get him? Nothing. The Corporation isn’t moved by lowly human emotions, it’s not moved by the fact that this man by their own metrics was likely an MVP for them. Even if we bought The Corporation’s metrics, they don’t play by their own rules. Think of the anguish Keely must have gone through, to be ripped apart from the thing you valued the most and around people you thought cared about you.

Yes, we can all lambast Keely for that sort of misguided thinking, but is that really the best way to move forward? If we want to affect the way things happen under capitalism we have to do much more than shame the people we disagree with or ridicule them in their weakest moments. We need to show that even by its own metrics capitalism doesn’t play by the rules it sets up to benefit itself. That’s a powerful argument and could help us a lot more than calling people “bootlickers” or other unproductive terms.

Then again, for all of my sympathy for Keely, it’s tough sometimes:

When [the customer] hangs up on me, I say,

“Look, Kee, what did you do wrong with this guy? theoretically you’re a genius in selling.” then I’ll say to myself, “I did nothing wrong. I’m a genius. This guy’s a dumb son of a bitch.”

p. 403

Damn, I’ve heard of unearned confidence, but this takes the cake.

Running a business when you literally think the sun shines out of your ass is no way to run it. You’re liable to make some mistakes along the way (I’d know) and it’s best to take stock of those mistakes and see how you can do better. The answer isn’t to just stuff it down and call ourselves perfect. That’s just ignorance and setting us up to fail in some pretty painful ways down the line. And look, I get we all need some coping mechanisms, but to quote the kids these days, “this ain’t it, chief.

There’s an interesting psychology to Keely where he talks about how he was introverted as a kid but when he discovered people liked him and he liked people he decided to sell. Ever since then Keely decided to start selling which got him to get better at socializing. That’s good in a way but it’s also made him dependent on selling as a means to live and have friends. It’s a coping mechanism, but again, not a very healthy one. There are other ways to make friends besides trying to sell things to them. In fact, you could argue this is perhaps one of the weirdest ways to make social connections.

His daughter comments very briefly, about how she’d never seen a man cry in her life (obviously a very healthy society we live in!) and that her father crashing like this has had to make her confront that her father is a real person. That the swimming pools, the fancy dresses and the big house wouldn’t necessarily last forever. Maybe it’s just not sustainable.

Larry Ross (Ex-President of Conglomerate; Consultant)

Ross is much more to my liking as he goes into detail about the corporate environment and how it works. Not much of it was surprising to me or particularly revolutionary to read, but it was still reassuring that I’ll always want to be a gray person, never a black or white. What do I mean by that? Well, Ross defines the “gray” people as the people who have no higher ambitions within the corporate structure. They’re not looking to become the new boss and replace you (if you’re a boss like he was) and they’re just passing through, on their way to the next corporation job.

The black and white people are the folks who are ambitious and looking to get ahead within the corporation. But Ross takes this metaphor in directions you might not expect given the sort of connotations being “gray” might have (boring). Ross describes the corporate environment as a “jungle” multiple times and says the rat race has lost its appeal to him. He’s seen the top of the mountain and questions its actual meaning. Money was only his secondary goal, because, as he says, “…you get to a certain point, money isn’t that important.” (p. 412) It’s the status and prestige and the power that matter.

For Ross it was the ability to go anywhere and be referred to as “Mr. Ross” or have a car and a private jet waiting for him. It was the feeling of having many people around him that he could always boss around or feel superior to. He cops to all of these feelings and more but now admits that it wasn’t much of a victory it’s in fact overrated.

The danger starts as soon as you become a district manager. You have men working for you and you have a boss above. You’re caught in a squeeze. The squeeze progresses from sation [sic] to station. I’ll tell you what the squeeze is. You have the guys working for you that are shooting for your job. The guy you’re working for is scared stiff you’re gonna shove him out of his job.

p. 406

There’s a culture of fear in corporations and everyone feels it, even those who pretend they don’t. Everyone thinks their too important in life to have something bad happen to them, until it actually happens and then you have to reexamine everything. Where did I go wrong? Have I been the asshole this whole time (the answer is often yes)? I remember going towards Boston one night many years ago and it was a slippery and cold night in Massachusetts. I was going down hills and roads, heading to catch the bus so I could get out of Worcester.

Did I mention I was walking this whole time? I’m dressed for the occasion, make no mistake, but I have to avoid cars coming down and up the roads and hills I’m on, it’s not fun. You know how I convince myself it’ll be okay? I kept reassuring myself I was the main character of my own story and that meant I would be fine. To be fair, I knew this was a ridiculous mental ritual, but hey, it got me down in one piece and I’m still here to tell the story so maybe it counted for something, right? Probably not.

The point being that we all tell ourselves we’re too important to get laid off, or for our marriages to fail, or for us to get cheated on, or for us to take advantage of a situation we normally wouldn’t. But often situations make us their pawns and we become unwitting accomplices to these disastrous events, whether we know it or not at the time. And as I said before about Keely, we can’t try to abscond from our responsibility here. Just because we were put in a bad situation and this may make us feel a little better about ourselves, doesn’t mean we couldn’t have done better or that we shouldn’t have done better! We can always do better and we should always try to.

Anyways:

Why didn’t I stay in the corporate structure? As a kid, living through the Depression, you always heard about the tycoons, the men of power, the men of industry. And you kind of dream that. Gee, these are supermen. These are the guys that have no feeling, aren’t subject to human emotions, the insecurities that everybody else has.

You get in the corporate structure, you find they all button their parents the same way everybody else does. They all got the same fears.

p. 407

Ross also noticed many signs of insecurity on a health and social basis commenting that everyone in a corporation, especially up above, is lonely.

They can’t confide in the people lower than them because it’ll make them look weak and if they do it to the people above them, same deal.

Well, what if they try to talk with the people on their levels? Usually those are the same people who want to get ahead of you, which will make you more expendable in the long-run. The corporate life is a lonely one, a life where everyone is constantly stressed out, suffering from ulcers from thinking that the person next to them is seconds away from stabbing them in the back. You know, like any healthy society would have!

Ross sees loyalty as the mark of a desperate individual, someone who has no other choice. Loyalty doesn’t come from the brave employees or the ones who truly believe in the company, but those who want to conquer the power structure so they can get on top. Don’t we all know people like this?

People who are always kissing up to the boss in an attempt to get promotions or be seen as the next in line in case they croak or quit or otherwise become indisposed? And when they do any of these things Ross reminds us that the corporation is quick to forget they ever existed:

When a top executive is let go, the king is dead, long live the kin. Suddenly he’s a persona non grata. When it happens, the shock is tremendous. Overnight. He doesn’t know what hit him.

Suddenly everybody in the organization walks away and shuns him because they don’t want to be associated with him.

p. 409

Ross’s final analysis of the situation is indeed grim and reveals the situation many of us find in capitalism within the 21st century, I’ll close with it. Before I do though, this is one of the best interviews in the book about corporate culture and how it works, so I implore you to check it out! There’s many details I left out here both for space and for y’all to enjoy yourself.

Now, without further ado, our grim reality:

But the warm personal touch never existed in corporations. That was just a sham. In the last analysis, you’ve got to make a profit. There’s a lot of family-held corporations that truly felt they were part of a legend. They had responsibilities to their people. they carried on as best they could.

And then they went broke. The loyalty to their people, their patriarchy, dragged ’em all down. Whatever few of ’em are left are being forced to sell, and are being taken over by the cold hand of the corporation.

My guess is that twenty corporations will control about forty percent of the consumer goods market. How much room is there left for the small guy? … The small chains will be taken over by the bigger chains and they themselves will be taken over … The fish swallows the smaller fish and he’s swallowed by a bigger one, until the biggest swallows ’em all.

I have a feeling there’ll always be room the small entrepreneur, but [they’ll] be rare. It’ll be very difficult for [them].

pp. 410-41

If you enjoyed this chapter review, consider making a small monthly donation to my site through Patreon! It helps me write more often, even while I’m working a part-time job and in school!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *