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Working: Then and Now


In the early 1970s, writer and broadcaster Studs Terkel interviewed dozens of working people in America. The result was Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do. The book is a classic of modern history, providing narrative snapshots of working life that are hard to resist. Having just finished reading through this tome, I thought it would be interesting to put down some general reflections on the stories people told in that era, and talk a little about what has changed, and what hasn’t.

What’s changed?

The short answer: a lot!

In the early 1970s, most Americans had become accustomed to having a single career, or even keeping the same job their entire working life. Changing careers midway through your working years wasn’t particularly common. Few of those interviewed reported working multiple jobs, and this was hardly a collection of upper middle class or wealthy people: most were solidly blue collar. In many ways, living was cheaper back then, and low-wage jobs still often paid enough to get by, even if just barely. The phenomenon of taking on multiple part-time jobs to make up for the lack of a single full-time position also never seemed to come up in Working: those who wanted full-time employment generally got it, even if they weren’t thrilled with the job overall. While not all workers who spoke about unions were happy with them, the sort of antipathy toward them found in most workers today simply wasn’t present.

Social attitudes have also changed significantly. Casual racism and sexism rear their ugly heads from time to time within the pages of Working, in forms that would make readers in 2015 blush (and perhaps fear for their jobs if they were to make the same utterances.) The n-word is used, if not liberally, at least unashamedly by white interviewees. The slur had clearly not yet become the linguistic taboo it is today. As far as how women are regarded: attitudes espoused by some of the men in Working would rightfully be recognized as embarrassing relics now. The “office girl” stereotype, most popular in the 1950s, is visibly alive and well here–but it hasn’t survived into the present, fortunately.

Education is also emphasized much more today, which is hardly surprising, but a good number of those interviewed in Working made respectable careers for themselves without even a high school diploma. It wasn’t unusual to drop out of school and go to work on a farm or in a local factory. Especially in the latter case, such a position was good for an entire career, with steady income increases all the while. Today, leaving high school without a diploma is regarded as a complete dead-end. Not many of those interviewed in Working had attended college, either, though there were a few. These days, at least half of those going into the workforce are coming in with a degree.

Several farmers were interviewed, and all were concerned about their future prospects. Organic farming was in its infancy at the time, and the farmers experimenting with it weren’t sure if it would save their business–crop prices kept falling while costs to produce crops went up. Presumably, the great agribusiness consolidation began shortly after this point in time, driving many family farms out of business. These days, family farms in the traditional sense are rarer, and their goods are often available at farmers’ markets and sourced for organic brands rather than making up the bulk of what ends up on supermarket produce shelves.

Of course, the elephant in the room with all this is the devastating impact neoliberal economic policies have had, which drove most livable blue-collar jobs out of the country, and concerns over those jobs were handwaved with calls for more and better education without much regard for the ultimate structure and sustainability of our labor force.

What’s still the same (or hasn’t changed much)?

Some of the attitudes on display are recognizable as if they’d been expressed just last week. A common theme laments the entitled, lazy mentality of younger workers, as many of those interviewed were ten, twenty, or more years into their careers. They held their younger coworkers in low esteem, viewing them as disrespectful and libertine, and uninterested in putting in an honest day’s work. Odds are, the reality was greatly exaggerated–such attitudes toward young people have been commonplace since time immemorial.

Professional women are still paid less, sometimes dramatically so. Some of the women in Working were well aware that the men around them got paid more, but also recognized that speaking up would risk their jobs. Though we may talk more about closing the gender pay gap, and have even made laws to help do it, cultural and gender barriers persist. Hiring decisions are typically made by men, and men are more likely to expect (and reward) aggressive salary negotiation, which women tend to be socialized not to engage in. And as an onerous double-standard, women who do stick up for themselves are derided as “bitchy” and “ice queens.” Views expressed in this book weren’t terribly different–things simply haven’t changed much on this front.

Policing, in terms of how it is performed, employs a lot more technology and specialization than it did in Terkel’s time, but it struck me how little police themselves have changed. The mentality of the police officers interviewed indicated an outsize sense of self-importance, and the belief that police are the only force holding back the collapse of civilization. Cops elucidate clearly racist thoughts while declaring they judge everyone fairly without regard for skin color. Interestingly, one interview with a black police officer pointed out this hypocrisy, and saw changing these attitudes as a difficult, uphill battle. His viewpoints could just as easily be expressed today and have the same resonance, for as little as police have changed in the past 40 years.

Worker satisfaction has been up and down over the years. In many of Working’s stories, people didn’t seem all that happy about their jobs–work was something you did to survive, because you had no other choice unless you wanted to be starving and homeless. Dissatisfaction came mostly from the repetitive, mind-numbing, dehumanizing nature of factory work, as well as a lack of respect and autonomy from management. Today, job satisfaction is also low, but for different reasons: poor job security, low pay (and low pay growth), and the like. Disrespectful management practices, at least, carry across the decades.

All told, I am ultimately not surprised by the differences I found–I knew at least the general contours. What surprised me most was how much was the same. Awareness of racial and gender equality issues was surprisingly high in the early 1970s, though that makes a good bit of sense given how recent the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements were at the time. Some folks actively embraced them, while others persisted in denial–not too different from 2015. Overall, I am disappointed by how little process we’ve made in some respects, and especially how the prospects of American workers have been worn away by decades of bad economic policy.

Nevertheless, even if you don’t share my particular interest in economic policy, I highly recommend Working as a historical portrait, describing a way of life that has since left us and is unlikely to come again.