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26 September 2021


Most of us will spend the majority of our waking hours at work. But even though it’s such a large part of our lives, we fail to give working the consideration it deserves. We may think about our jobs a lot – how badly we need a raise or vacation – but we don’t think about the bigger questions. What’s the point of work? What role should work play in my life? What kind of work might make me happy?

By the time we’re experienced enough to really consider these questions, we’ve likely already chosen a career. Financial pressure, competition, and pre-professional education make it harder to take our time. It’s also not easy to have real conversations with people who have different kinds of jobs – many would consider it intimate to be asked about their work and satisfaction in a non-superficial way – much less to try different kinds of jobs ourselves.

This is part of what makes Studs Terkel’s book Working so interesting. It’s a collection of nearly a hundred interviews with working Americans in the early 1970s. They’re presented in the interviewees’ own words with little interlocution, and they cover, according to the subtitle of the book, what people do all day and how they feel about what they do. All kinds of workers are represented, from waitresses, store owners, and executives to stonemasons, custodians, and housewives.

The book is expansive and hard to summarize. It’s full of insight – mundane, profane, and profound – about working life and American culture. The scope and depth of thought that its interviews make available to the reader would be near impossible for an ordinary person to collect in conversation.

Despite the fifty-year gap between the 1970s and today, the comments on work and society in the book still ring true. Computers hadn’t taken over the world in the same way they have now, but the automobile industry, mass-production, and automation similarly threatened jobs and humanity. The same social and environmental issues that concerned Terkel’s interviewees are still being talked about today. And the key questions our forebears in the ’70s asked about work and meaning are timeless.

A few themes came through across the interviews as key ingredients for good work:

Below are my favorite excerpts from the interviews.

“We’re all vice presidents,” laughs the copy chief. “Clients like to deal with vice presidents. Also, it’s a cheap thing to give somebody. Vice presidents get fired with great energy and alacrity.”

Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell. It is perhaps this fear of no longer being needed in a world of needless things that most clearly spells out the unnaturalness, the surreality of much that is called work today.

“The evil genius of our time is the car,” Barry Byrne, an elderly architect, observed several years ago. “We must conquer the automobile or become enslaved by it.”

“Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful – not just as the source of a buck – you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs. There’s no excuse for mules any more. Society does not need them. There’s no question about our ability to feed and clothe and house everybody. The problem is going to come in finding enough ways for man to keep occupied, so he’s in touch with reality.” (Ralph Helstein, President Emeritus, United Packinghouse Workers of America)


Automation? Depends how it’s applied. It frightens me if it puts me out on the street. It doesn’t frighten me if it shortens my work week. You read that little thing: what are you going to do when this computer replaces you? Blow up computers. I’ll be goddamned if a computer is gonna eat before I do! I want milk for my kids and beer for me. Machines can either liberate man or enslave ‘im, because they’re pretty neutral. It’s man who has the bias to put the thing in one place or another.

What do you think would happen in this country if, for one year, they experimented and gave everybody a twenty-hour week? How do they know that the guy who digs Wallace today doesn’t try to resurrect Hitler tomorrow? Or the guy who is mildly disturbed at pollution doesn’t decide to go to General Motors and shit on the guy’s desk? You can become a fanatic if you had the time. The whole thing is time. That is, I think, one reason rich kids tend to be fanatic about politics: they have time.

Mike LeFevre, steelworker

I get a lot of phone calls when I get home: how about showin’ me how and I’ll do it myself? I always wind up doin’ it for ‘em.

Carl Murray Bates, stonemason

You’re in one of the richest areas in the world and some of the poorest people in the world. They’s about twenty-eight gas and oil wells. They have out here they claim at least a three-million-dollar-a-year gas well. One of the men that works for the gas company said they valued it at twenty-five million dollars, that one well. They offered a woman seventy-five dollars on the farm that the gas well’s just laid on, for destroyin’ half an acre of her place to set that well up. They can do that legally because they have the mineral rights – broad form deed.

Eighteen eighty-nine, my grandfather sold this, everything known and all that might be found later – gas, oil, coal, clay, stone… My grandfather and grandmother signed it with two X’s.

Joe and Susie Haynes, deep miner and his wife

I came in after a flight one day, my grandfather had died. Usually they call you up or meet you at the flight and say, “We have some bad news for you.” I picked up this piece of paper in my mailbox and it says, “Mother called in. Your grandfather died today.” It was written like, say, two cups of sugar. Was I mad! They wouldn’t give me time off for the funeral. You can only have time off for your parents or somebody you have lived with. I had never lived with my grandparents. I went anyway.

Terry Mason, airline stewardess

It’s not too different than the distinction between an executive secretary and somebody in the typing pool. As an executive secretary, you really identify with your boss. When you’re part of the typing pool, you’re a body, you’re hired labor, a set of hands on the typewriter. You have nothing to do with whoever is passing the work down to you. You do it as quickly as you can.

Roberta Victor, hooker

I get out there and infiltrate, to find out why, when, and where. We need an element to get out there. I’m not saying it’s the greatest thing in the world, but it’s necessary. It’s a evil because crime is evil. Why do these people who preach liberalism and pacifism require walls around their houses? They need these buffers. That’s what we are, buffers.

We have lost complete contact with the people. They get the assumption that we’re gonna be called to the scene for one purpose – to become violent to make an arrest. No way I can see that. I am the community officer. They have taken me away from the people I’m dedicated to serving – and I don’t like it.

There is a double standard, let’s face it. You can stop John Doe’s average son for smoking pot and he’ll go to jail. But if I stop Johnny Q on the street and his daddy happens to be the president of a bank or he’s very heavy in politics or knows someone, you look like a jerk. Why did you arrest him? Do you know who he is? I could care less who he is. If he breaks the law, go.

Vincent Maher, policeman

The workers said, “We perspire, we sweat, we have hangovers, we have upset stomachs, we have feelings and emotions, and we’re not about to be placed in a category of a machine.” When you talk about that watch, you talk about it for a minute. We talk about a lifetime. We’re gonna do what’s normal and we’re gonna tell you what’s normal. We’ll negotiate from there. We’re not gonna start on a watch-time basis that has no feelings.

Their idea is not to run the plant. I don’t think they’d know what to do with it. They don’t want to tell the company what to do, but simply have something to say about what they’re going to do. They just want to be treated with dignity. That’s not asking a hell of a lot.

The biggest polluter is the thing we produce, the automobile. The livelihood that puts bread on your table. I don’t know if the people in the plant question it. I wouldn’t want to see all the automobiles banned because they pollute the air. Yet I realize what the hell good is my livelihood if the air’s gonna kill me anyway. There are so many priorities that have to be straightened out.

Gary Bryner, President, Lordstown Local, United Auto Workers

It was a nice job in the beginning. As the time goes along, it gets harder. I was in the second bunch of blacks that was hired. Nineteen forty-five. The job was predominantly white. We had all kinds of facilities in the barn: we had pool tables, we had a little library, we even had a restaurant there. As more blacks came in, they started taking these things away. Now you don’t have anything to do but go in, check in for your run, check out, and go home.

Will Robinson, bus driver

A Teamster official was maybe a truckdriver twenty-five or thirty years ago. Fought the good fight, built the union, got high on the hog. So many years have passed that he doesn’t even know what a truck looks like any more. He now golfs with his contemporaries from the trucking companies. He lolls about Miami Beach at the Hollywood Hotel that they own. To him, to have a deal with a truckdriver is beneath his station. It’s awfully hard when you get to the union hall to talk to a Teamster official. They’re usually ‘busy.’ that means they’re down at the Palmer House, at the Steak Restaurant. It’s a hangout for ‘em.

Frank Decker, interstate truckdriver

Could the world survive without my work? No. There has to be a salesman. Oh, if a man put his mind to it – and I’ve thought about it myself – that could all be computerized. All a salesman does is find a car that suits you, which has the best features and which has the worst. All that can be put into a computer and you’d have a questionnaire that people would answer. The only thing that would require a salesman is the price.

Sure, cars could be much better if it wasn’t for the oil companies and the gas companies. They could run on air, they could run on water – or electric. There’s no end to what they could do right now, but they won’t.

Johnny Bosworth, car salesman

I don’t look at housework as a drudgery. People will complain: “Why do I have to scrub floors?” To me, that isn’t the same thing as a man standing there – it’s his livelihood – putting two screws together day after day after day. It would drive anybody nuts. It would drive me wild. That poor man doesn’t even get to see the finished product. I’ll sit here and I’ll cook a pie and I’ll get to see everybody eat it. This is my offering. I think it’s the greatest satisfaction in the world to know you’ve pleased somebody. Everybody has to feel needed. I know I’m needed. I’m doing it for them and they’re doing it for me. And that’s the way it is.

Therese Carter, housewife

I see us living in a completely schizophrenic society. We live in one place, work in another place, and play in a third. You have to talk differently depending on who you’re talking to. You work in one place, get to know the people, you go home at night and you’re lonely because you don’t know anyone in your neighborhood. I see this as a means of bringing all that together. I like the idea of people living together and working together.

Work is an essential part of being alive. Your work is your identity. It tells you who you are. It’s gotten so abstract. People don’t work for the sake of working. They’re working for a car, a new house, or a vacation. It’s not the work itself that’s important to them. There’s such a joy in doing work well.

Kay Stepkin, director of bakery cooperative

Jobs are not big enough for people. It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.

Nora Watson, editor

I had my own organization, fifteen people. “Let’s go out and do a job for the client. Yes, sir. Let’s lick his boots.” Who’s the man with the checkbook? What does he want from you? Now you take nice things and make them into some dumb package. Some plastic thing which is not biodegradable, which will not decompose, which fills the society where you want to scream, “We’re drowning in plastics!”

Walter Lundquist, industrial designer

I realize there are only two ways to do things: work for somebody else or be an owner. There are two classes of people, the haves and the have-nots. The haves own. I went to the local bank and discovered that this dairy bar was for sale. I said, “I can cook a hamburger.” But I’d never worked in a restaurant, even as a bus boy or soda jerk. We borrowed a hundred percent of the money from the bank, fourteen thousand dollars. We revamped the entire place because it hadn’t been kept up.

Fred Ringley, ex-salesman; farmer

The fuckin’ world’s so fucked up, the country’s fucked up. But 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 duying. You can’t get around that shit. That’s real. To me, that’s what I want to be.

Tom Patrick, fireman