Working: Still toiling away after 50 years


Episode 6 of the recently released Master of None has been getting a lot of attention. Rightfully so. Rather than follow the main characters of the show, the episode peeks into the lives of three incidental characters that cross paths with the people who would normally be the centre of a show. We see snippets of background story for a fancy apartment building doorman, a corner store cashier and a taxi driver (also all with added dimensions of race, nationality and disability). These are insights into jobs and the people who do those jobs that are rarely depicted in popular culture, and certainly not with the level of nuance, balance and humanity found here.

This episode reminded me of the excellent work of Studs Turkel. I had only read previously his Division Street: America, which still reads as a wonderful slice of life, good and bad, rich and poor, and everything in between, in Chicago. But this month, the Southwark Playhouse, an unexpectedly and wonderfully brilliant theatre in my neighborhood (get an astonishingly cheap pay as you go subscription now!), are doing a run of performances of Studs Turkel’s Working.

Ahead of seeing the show, I decided it was finally time to read the book. I happen to own two copies of it. One copy I bought long ago and dragged with me from Chicago to New York back to Chicago and now to London. The other copy is the graphic novel version adapted by Harvey Pekar given to me as a birthday present by my sister last year.

About two-thirds through the book, it is proving to be ever relevant even 45 years later. While many of the jobs that are discussed no longer exist (e.g. switchboard operator, elevator starter), there are many more that do still exist or can be directly translated to more modern jobs. No matter the job, however, the underlying themes remain the same. Terkel summarizes them well in his introduction. Here are a few particularly relevant quotations.

“A farm equipment worker in Moline complains that the careless worker who turns out more that is bad is better regarded than the careful craftsman who turns out less that is good.” – Terkel from the Introduction

That one reminds me of some of the stuff multiple managers of mine have said, wanting lesser quality output from me in order to churn out more and more quickly. This is as much true for modern office workers as it was then for factory workers.

“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.” – Terkel from the Introduction

Definitely still true today, if not even more so. Between the planned obsolescence of electronics and appliances that makers use to force us to continually replace objects every couple years to the quick and cheaply made things you might buy at Walmart/Asda or fast fashion, we’re even more so now making needless things.

“Learning is work. Caring for children is work. Community action is work. Once we accept the concept of work as something meaningful–not just the source of a buck–you don’t have to worry about finding enough jobs.” – Terkel quoting Ralph Helstein, president emeritus of the United Packinghouse Workers of America in the Introduction

We’re still having the same conversation today when we talk about gender equality in the working world, debate the length of a working day/week and float the idea of a universal basic income.

“Even as a writer as astringent and seemingly unromantic as Orwell never quite lost the habit of seeing working classes through the cozy fug of an Edwardian music hall […] Simultaneously, as our ‘Alf,’ called ‘Archie’ or ‘Joe,’ is romanticized, he is caricatured.” – Terkel in the Introduction

It’s a much longer chunk of text, but here Terkel is criticizing (rather scathingly) the way journalists use the “cabdriver-philosopher” or any number of other working class stereotypes to try to romanticize their “plight” in an effort to “relate” to them, which ultimately is a perverse way of using them in the same way to make a point. I could not help but think of all the tedious “I’m traveling to the white working class heartland to understand Trump/Brexit” articles that have come out in the last year (I’m not going to even link to any…).

The stories of Barbara Herrick, a script supervisor/producer at an LA advertising agency, and of Renault Robinson, a Chicago police officer and founder of the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League, have struck me as incredibly insightful for their time and depressingly relevant still today in their discussions of gender in white collar environments and race in policing, respectively. I found myself underlining so much of Robinson’s interview as entirely unchanged today, such as:

“About sixty percent of police-citizen conflict starts in a traffic situation. […] Black folks don’t have a voice to complain. Consequently, they continue to be victims of shadowy, improper, overburdened police service. Traffic is the big entree. […] That’s why more young kids are being killed by police than ever before. They won’t accept dehumanizing treatment. – Renault Robinson in the Watching chapter

Interestingly, NPR and Radio Diaries dug up some of Turkel’s original interview recordings and paired them up with present day interviews of some of the people from the book. Robinson was one of those they revisited and it’s no surprise to hear the futility in his current day interview at how little has changed in 50 years.

It’s fitting I chose now to read the book and watch this play, as I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of work lately in my own life and more broadly.

  • How we value and don’t value certain skill sets and professions (see: the complete undervaluing of care and teaching jobs).
  • How privatization has changed the way issues that were once public benefit issues are now prioritized and valued.
  • How drives to efficiency (simultaneously innocuous and insidious) change the quality of work and quantity of output.
  • How the startup/entrepreneur culture is currently being highly revered, yet how the outputs from many of those types of companies are very far from positively beneficial to society. Plus how the ability to even start or work in those types of companies is closed off to anyone but the most privileged. Plus how its trendiness has caused governments and other funding sources to frame things through similar lenses and buzzwords, forcing everyone else to follow suit.
  • How late capitalism and neoliberalism are so ingrained in us, we don’t see how to get our messages across without translating to capital (see: some strands of feminist thinking that focus only on translating success in career for certain types of women, or the rise of natural capital, payment for ecosystem services or other ways of translating the benefits of nature into monetary terms).
  • How it’s nearly impossible to conceptualize living in a city like London, New York, San Francisco or many others without a full-time, high-paying, white-collar job, plus help from others to pay for housing.
  • How over and over again, when I see successful women, they have had to start their own businesses or go out on their own in order to get the recognition and pride of work they are looking for.
  • How freelancing and contract working and the “gig economy” is often pitched as flexible and a form of “freedom”, but in reality for many allows “clients” to take advantage of contractors (lower pay, no time off, no job security, control over people employed under compromised circumstances, no protections in case of health impacts, no provision of benefits like health care and pension) and forces freelancers to always be “hustling” for new work.
  • How people are encouraged to find work in something they are passionate in, without recognizing what it means to monetize one’s passions. Miya Tokumitsu does an excellent critique of the “Do What You Love” mantra that now pervades how we are told to think about work in an article in Jacobin.

No answers at the moment (I mean, other than moving away from neoliberalism, of course).

On the macro scale, another recent article by Miya Tokumitsu in the New Republic covers some proposed solutions out there. The article references a couple books (one of which is The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries by Kathi Weeks) and from those suggests a few options–elimination of work (via a universal basic income and stronger welfare state) and the idea of full employment (via reduced working hours and a stronger welfare state…similar to experiments happening in Sweden). Of course, either solution requires creating and living in a society that values individuals over corporations and has a centralized government with enough of a backbone to support the rights of the many.

The article suggests that neoliberalism was a revolution of capitalist thought that overtook the conventional Keynesian thought of the previous day, and so why can’t postcapitalist ideas of work be a similar revolution. Then we’re back to the fundamentals of capitalism (it’s the same conclusion Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything comes to in relation to climate change–we can finally battle it, if we completely change the way our capitalist society functions). But, those with the money have the power and this neoliberalism revolution that happened was entirely to support the enhancement of capital for those at the top, so what really would it take to either change their minds (and care about the individuals above corporations) or to take away their power?

On a much smaller, micro scale, an article in the NYTimes a few years ago about research done by consultants and academics about how to improve employee engagement and performance highlights the four reasons why people hate their jobs. Relevant to both those stories in Terkel’s Working and to present day, it points out that:

Employees are vastly more satisfied and productive, it turns out, when four of their core needs are met: physical, through opportunities to regularly renew and recharge at work; emotional, by feeling valued and appreciated for their contributions; mental, when they have the opportunity to focus in an absorbed way on their most important tasks and define when and where they get their work done; and spiritual, by doing more of what they do best and enjoy most, and by feeling connected to a higher purpose at work.

In the meantime, I personally am trying to work a 4-day work week. It’s been eye-opening to see how much difference in my life it has made to be able to reclaim a day a week to be able to do what I want, whether fun, volunteering/unpaid work, self-care, travel, professional development or other interests. I recognize that I am incredibly privileged to be able to take the reduction in pay, have the security of work and be in a country where alternative ways of working are considered (though, who knows whether that will continue once the UK leaves the EU). But the point is that I shouldn’t be lucky to have this, it should be open more broadly.

P.S. The Centre of London has devoted a whole issue of its London Essays to Work and what it looks like in a modern day city like London. I have yet to read through them all, but yet another a good discussion of the issue.