Revisiting Studs Terkel

As I pondered the economic state of things for ordinary folks these days, I was reminded of Stud Terkel’s 1972 book, Working (Pantheon Books). Studs (what a great name) wanted to know, way back then, “what [people] do all day and how they feel about what they do.” He crisscrossed the country and asked people how they felt about the work that consumed the better part of their waking hours. Then, with a little bit of introduction, he let them talk to us, in their own words. It’s a thick tome, nearly 600 pages. Studs introduced the reflections of working people this way: “This book being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence-to the spirit as well as the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us…the scars, psychic as well as physical, brought home to the supper table and the TV set, may have touched, malignantly, the soul of our society.”

That’s how Studs summed up what he heard from working people in the late 60s and early 70s, a time I had always seen as safely inside the economic boom that followed the troops home from World War II. A time before American companies started exporting their jobs to offshore islands where they could pay people less and reap more profit. A time when, I thought, American workers still took pride in the work they did and found a certain satisfaction in doing it.

If workers felt that way 40 years ago, how do they feel today, when computers, robots, and trade agreements have stripped them of even the tasks they used to do? I have to admit I was fortunate to spend most of my working life in a field I enjoyed, that didn’t leave the kind of scars Studs reported in 1972. But I’m wondering how others feel about the work they’ve done (are doing) here in the 21st century. If you have time, please share your thoughts about what “working” has done to (or for) you. I’d really like to know.

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