Studs Terkels Working new jobs, same need for meaning
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.