Working, by Studs Terkel (1974)

This is one of those timeless classics of oral history. Or rather, it’s firmly set in time but will be relevant for a long, long while, just like Terkel’s famous book Hard Times, an oral history of the Great Depression. Working is a collection of interviews with people from a wide variety of professions about what they do all day, and what they think about what they do. The scope really is vast – from rich executives to the people who clean their homes, from young people working their first paying job to old tradespeople about to retire, and with more interviews with working women included than you would ever expect from a book written in the 1970’s, including with women from various class backgrounds who describe themselves as homemakers. The interviews are generally about 2-5 pages long, and give a well-rounded idea of what it was like to be working one of these jobs in the 1970’s, but the real reason this book is still in print today is that Terkel is regarded as one of the great interviewers and chroniclers of the common man and woman’s lot. The interviews are all transcribed verbatim with the help of what was surely a large, unwieldy tape recorder, and their subjects vary in their ability to express and describe their daily routine, but through it all the amazing capacity of Terkel to encourage them to open up and share their thoughts never ceases. Recurring themes: few people get along with their boss. A large number say that their only hope for an improvement in working conditions lies with younger employees who have the idealism and energy to fight against unjust treatment. The treatment of Black workers was not just terrible, but terrible in institutionally sanctioned and approved ways. Likewise for women, with the addition of the sort of sexual harassment which verges on the unbelievable to someone of my age. The extent to which people have control over the nature of their work is strongly connected to their degree of satisfaction, with the few who enjoy a truly democratic workplace (such as cooperative bakery) or work independently with the ability to dictate their terms (such as a successful musician) coming across as the most happy. People genuinely want to work at a job they feel is useful and productive. And those who don’t have that, can’t wait to retire.