Studs Terkels Working new jobs, same need for meaning

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Studs Terkels Working new jobs, same need for meaning
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The world of work may have changed since 1974, but Working still has relevance for those of us in the workplace today

In early 1970s America, in a two-flat dwelling on the edge of Chicago sits a man called Mike, a 37-year-old steelworker. The day I get excited about my job is the day I go to a head shrinker, he says. How are you gonna get excited about pullin steel? How you gonna get excited when youre tired and want to sit down? We move to a production line at a Ford assembly plant. Phil is a spot-welder, 27 years old. It doesnt stop. It just goes and goes and goes, he says. I bet theres men who have lived and died out there, never seen the end of that line. And they never will because its endless. In Manhattan, Roberta, a prostitute, is talking. The way you maintain your integrity is by acting all the way through, she says. Its not too far removed from what most American women do which is to put on a big smile and act.

Mike, Phil and Roberta are not fictional characters in a novel or film they are real. They do not know each other but the one thing they all share is that in each of the above scenes there is another man. He is in his early 60s with a prominent nose, a shock of wavy white hair and he has a tape recorder. Studs Terkel was by this time already a well-known radio broadcaster in his native Chicago and the author of two books, on the great depression and on his home city, that had forged his reputation as the master of oral history, where a theme is explored using the recorded testimony of ordinary people rather than the insights of academics and experts. For his next book, Working, published in the spring of 1974 in the United States and the following year in Britain, Terkel would talk to more than 100 men and women about what they did all day and how they felt about it. During the course of three years research, he listened without prejudice to waitresses and prostitutes, gravediggers and stonemasons, accountants and bookbinders.

When Working was published, Richard Nixon was months from resigning as president, The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford was the big movie in cinemas and the worlds slimmest calculator by todays standard was not very slim at all had just gone on sale for $99.95. Rereading Terkels book is to be offered a glimpse of that lost world in which airline stewardess Terry Mason explains how at stewardess school she was taught the correct way to accept a light for a cigarette from a man. You look into their eyes as theyre lighting your cigarette and youre cupping his hand, but holding it just very light, she says, so that he can feel your touch and your warmth it used to be really great for a woman to blow the match out when she looked in his eyes, but now the man blows the match out. It was a time when a receptionist such as Sharon could tell Terkel I dont think theyd ever hire a male receptionist. Theyd have to pay him more, for one thing. It was a world where switchboard operators such as Frances still physically connected telephone calls. The greatest thing is listening on phone calls, she confides to Terkel, when youre not busy. If you work nights and its real quiet. I dont think theres an operator who hasnt listened in on calls. The night goes faster.

The book may lack a plot or a narrative but there is no shortage of human drama in Working. It was a bestseller on publication and among those who read it was the musical theatre composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, who would later go on to win awards for Wicked. He was intrigued by the fact that Working shone a light on those who tend to be invisible. He flew out to Chicago and told Terkel he wanted to adapt the book into a musical. Terkel was bemused but gave his approval. The show opened on Broadway in 1978 and has since been restaged in revised forms seven times. It is currently on in an updated version at Southwark Playhouse.

Working at Southwark Playhouse. Photograph: Robert Workman

Terkel wrote that Working was about a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Rereading the book, it is striking how often those who seem to find most meaning in their job are those most closely involved in work that is tangible the dentist who takes pride in improving a patients appearance and the bookbinder who knows their work is helping preserve a 400-year-old book. There is a continual refrain in the pages, a plea for recognition. Somebody built the Pyramids. Pyramids, Empire State Building these things dont just happen, Mike tells Terkel. Theres hard work behind it. I would like to see a building, say, the Empire State, I would like to see one side of it a foot wide strip from top to bottom with the name of every bricklayer, the name of every electrician, with all the names. So when a guy walked by, he could take his son and say see, thats me over there on the 45th floor. I put the steel beam in. Everybody should have something to point to. It is perhaps not surprising that a steelworker should find pride in having built the Empire State Building but others find it in less obvious areas. When I put the plate down, you dont hear a sound, says Dolores, a waitress. When someone says, how come youre just a waitress? I say dont you think you deserve to be served by me?

I enjoy it very much, especially in summer, says Elmer of his work. I dont think any job inside a factory or an office is so nice. You have the air all day and its just beautiful. The smell of the grass when its cut, its just fantastic. Elmer is a gravedigger.

The world of work described feels altogether more stable and predictable than it does now. Working depicts a time just before great changes happened in the workplace changes that no one in the book predicted. The concept of a work-life balance was decades away, as was the idea of a portfolio career; most of the men and women Terkel spoke to could expect to remain in one job until retirement. Few of the interviewees mention the potential threats that computers pose to their livelihood. The spectre of race loomed over much of the testimony, but not once in 589 pages does anyone express fear that their work might be outsourced to Mexico, India or China. The future was something to embrace rather than to fear. The 20-hour week is a possibility today, Mike told Terkel. The reality is that, four decades on, workers are expected to work longer, retire later and forgo many of their benefits and securities.

While revisiting the book is a reminder of how the world with its e-jobs and virtual offices has changed, it is also a reminder of what does not change: the desire for dignity and respect. Im a checker and Im very proud of it, says Babe, a supermarket worker who had been doing the same job for almost 30 years. Im making an honest living. Whoever looks down on me, theyre lower than I am. Roy, a 58-year-old garbage man, tells Terkel I dont look down on my job in any way. I couldnt say I despise myself for doing it. I feel better at it than I did at the office. Its meaningful to society.

Many of the specific jobs in Working may have disappeared, but in a world where calls from the US and the UK could both be answered in Bangalore, where we shop in the same stores, eat in the same restaurant franchises and shop online from the same behemoths, Working remains a timely read. The new musical adaptation includes characters in jobs that did not exist in the early 70s an Indian call centre operator, a Deliveroo-style delivery boy and a hedge fund manager alongside Terkels defunct 70s jobs.

In his introduction, Terkel wondered if perhaps immortality is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book. For some, that immortality came through what they made. Nothing in this world lasts forever, says Carl, a stonemason, but Bedford limestone, they claim, deteriorates one sixteenth of an inch every hundred years and its around four or five inches for a house. So thats getting awful close. For others, such as firefighter Tom, immortality came through what they did. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guys dying. You cant get around that shit. Thats real It shows I did something on this earth. Not everyone can be a firefighter, but all those who shared their stories and words with Terkel did give their lives meaning, and in return, through capturing them in his book, he conferred on them something very close to immortality.

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