Studs Terkel “Working”

Studs Terkel has just died. You may not know him, but his brilliant book “Working” (first published 1972) influenced me in the writing of “How to Enjoy Your Job” (published 2008). “Working” has the sub-title of “People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do”. 

It is striking that people’s jobs may change but the feelings we have about work are the same across generations. People want to work and make a difference in their community, they want to look after their family and earn a good income. They want to do something worthwhile with their time. They want to be valued and respected, even if the job they do is menial. 

Looking through his book, there are no IT consultants, no knowledge workers. Gen Y is not born yet and Gen X is still toddling. People do not work on computers. But the language is similar, and the problems are the same. I have just reread the chapter that is most like office work. The closest I could find to that is the “Project Manager” under Bureaucracy section. There is this telling sentence.

“The most frustrating thing for me is to know that what I’m doing does not have a positive impact on others. I don’t see this work as meaning anything. I now treat my job disdainfully.”

How many office workers identify with this in 2008? 

It is a great book as it tells the stories of people’s working lives in their own voices, much as Po Bronson is also doing now. I still believe you can find happiness in your work, and if not in your daily grind, then you must find it outside of your job. But don’t underestimate the effect of your job on your life, your health and your happiness. 

“…work, is, by it’s very nature, about violence – to the spirit as well as to 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.”

From “Working” Studs Terkel’ Introduction.

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