I have an impractical desire to experience all the experiences. I could go on at great length about this, but Sylvia Plath says it best:
“I can never read all the books I want; I can never be all the people I want and live all the lives I want. I can never train myself in all the skills I want. And why do I want? I want to live and feel all the shades, tones and variations of mental and physical experience possible in my life. And I am horribly limited.”
Thankfully, there are books like “Working.” (The book itself is even longer than its subtitle: “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”.)
The interviews in its pages are windows into hundreds of other minds and lives, together creating a left-leaning snapshot of working-class America in the early 1970s. The voices of farmers, prostitutes, athletes, black and white cops, car assemblers and so many others are coaxed out and edited into coherency by Studs Turkel. They offer details on how they spend their working hours, musings on their industries, and insights into the universal struggle for purpose.
More than just shining a light on individual occupations, the book made me stop and consider what it means to “make a living.” American society is obsessed with gainful employment, to the point that it’s the most frequent question I’ve heard at all phases of my life (“What do you want to be when you grow up?” became “What’s your major?” became “What do you do?”). As a result, we have a high standard of living with an overabundance of goods and services, but at what cost?
Most people in the pages of “Working” don’t like their jobs. This leads to dozens of depressing accounts of people who feel trapped doing something they hate, oftentimes in dehumanizing conditions. They want to feel bigger than a replaceable cog in the machine, want to be able to point at something they’ve done with a sense of personal responsibility, but they feel they don’t have the skills or finances to change professions. As Studs points out, “most of us… have jobs that are too small for our spirit”.
However, this makes those who take pride in their work all the more refreshing, like the grocery store clerk who does a little dance as she checks out items, or the stonemason who daydreams about the technical challenges of building a house entirely of stone. Passion is infectious, even when it concerns cans of green beans and lumps of rock, and it’s a reminder to find a way to let our souls shine through our work instead of being repressed by it.
As a computer programmer, I have a job that barely existed in 1972. I am one of the lucky ones. I am well-compensated, with flexible work hours and engaging work that allows for some self-expression. I’m also young enough that all the politics and bureaucratic inefficiencies still seem like interesting lessons.
Still, none of this changes the fact that I’m bound to a desk 8-12 hours a day, trading most of my time to a company I have little personal stake in. I want to keep making things, but no matter hard I work, I always feel like I could be producing more. Doing this effectively non-stop for over 35 years is a terrifying prospect, especially considering my earlier sentiment about experiencing all that life can offer.
Reading the voices of elderly workers, morose over repetitive years and missed opportunities, only reinforces my feelings that living to work is not ideal, unless it furthers my (at this point undeveloped) sense of purpose.
I don’t know a sustainable alternative to the work-hard mentality that would allow us a sense of freedom while still keeping the economy humming (both in our own homes and out). Though if I continue down this train of thought, I’ll start to sound as crazy as Charlie Blossom, the flighty hippie copywriter who got his own section in this book.
Confusions over societal roles aside, I’m glad I read “Working”. I will never be a switchboard operator in 1972. But now I have a vague idea of what that experience was like, and I feel a little less limited.