Restlessness at work
On Studs Terkel and what we do all day
Whenever I am thinking about changing jobs, I like to read the work of the Chicago oral historian Studs Terkel. I think I do this to remind myself that nobody was ever really satisfied with working.
When I was preparing to leave my first post-college job as staff writer at the alternative weekly newspaper in Charleston, I decided to do some interviews in the style of Terkel’s 1974 book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.
My final issue at the Charleston City Paper in September 2015 included six first-person narratives taken straight from my interviews with Dr. Robert Bennett, forensic scientist; Freddie Brown, computer resale manager; Isaac Vanderhorst, prep cook; Margo Venomous, tattoo artist; James Jamison, taxi driver; and Bertha Edmond, longshoreman. (In previous issues I’d interviewed Dana Ford, cleanup technician; Renee King, salvage car buyer; and a private investigator whose article I can’t find online at the moment.)
The format was simple: I would sit down to interview a person with a voice recorder and a few open-ended questions, ask some follow-ups, then transcribe their answers back at the office and put them together in a sort of coherent narrative. I don’t remember how I picked these people or how I convinced them to open up like they did. Sometimes people surprise you when you ask about their lives.
There were some timely observations, like when Jamison talked about Uber moving in on the taxicab companies’ market and jacking up fares. There were tender moments, like when Ford shared what it was like to console family members in their homes at crime scene cleanups.
The story that haunted me most was Edmond’s. She told me how a swinging cargo container had crushed her heel and knee on the job two years prior, and how the injury had kept her out of work. After raising three kids as a single parent on her longshorewoman’s wages, she was struggling with her newfound limitations. She had to walk with a cane sometimes.
“I don’t like talking about this injury because this injury took my life — you may as well say so,” she said.
The people I spoke with tended to invest a little more meaning in their working life than Terkel’s interview subjects. Edmond, for example, was proud to be one of the highest-trained women in a majority-male workforce. But when their bodies, bosses, and economic systems failed them, they were left asking the same bitter questions.
“Jobs are not big enough for people,” Nora Watson told Studs Terkel during her interview for Working. Watson was 28 years old at the time and working as a staff writer at an institution that published healthcare literature. She didn’t care much about the work.
Watson went on:
It’s not just the assembly line worker whose job is too small for his spirit, you know? A job like mine, if you really put your spirit into it, you would sabotage immediately. You don’t dare. So you absent your spirit from it. My mind has been so divorced from my job, except as a source of income, it’s really absurd.
Terkel, for his part, had built a sort of charmed career in TV and radio broadcasting, written a few books, and was starting to reflect on what it all meant as he plodded along through his 50s.
He seemed to get what Watson meant. He wrote in the introduction to Working that his book was, by its nature, about violence to the spirit and body. He wrote this as a middle aged man:
Ken Brown, a tycoon at twenty-six, respects the “work ethic” far, far more than Walter Lundquist, forty-eight. It isn’t the calendar age that determines a man’s restlessness. It is daily circumstance, an awareness of being hurt, and an inordinate hunger for “another way.” As Lundquist, who gave up a “safe” job for “sanity,” puts it: “Once you wake up the human animal you can’t put it back to sleep again.”
Working turns 50 years old next year, and while U.S. working conditions have shifted considerably since the book’s publication — political saboteurs have kneecapped labor unions, Congress hasn’t voted to raise the minimum wage since the Bush II administration, astronomical student and medical debt have crushed entire generations of families, and the captains of late capitalism have further exploited overseas workers while breaking up careers in the U.S. into a series of discrete “gigs” — the problems of the spirit remain.
Like a small-time Studs Terkel, I led a sort of charmed career. I worked for 8 years in local journalism, the job I’d wanted since I was a teenager, first at the alt-weekly and then at the biggest daily paper in the state. I even got to do my best Studs impression again in April 2019 when I interviewed public school teachers about the second and third jobs they worked to make ends meet.
The work was a core part of my identity that made me proud, until I became so depressed and neurotic that I couldn’t carry on. The pay was abysmal, the hours chaotic, the news unremittingly bleak, and the bosses unhelpful to say the least. Toward the end, I remember watching a veteran newsman retire and announce his plans to work on a book. A month later, I ran into him working at a gas station because he didn’t actually have the money to retire. I saw myself on a path to ruination.
I left the industry in May 2019 and never went back. I still have a pile of journalism award plaques that I keep in my shed with the scrap lumber. I’m just sentimental enough that I can’t throw them in the trash yet.
I’ve spent the last 4 years working as a technical writer. Some days I have felt a little like Nora Watson, although if the ghost of Studs appeared before me today and asked me about it, I don’t think I’d have much to say. It’s a living. It beats breaking my back or my mind.
I briefly attended therapy after losing my newspaper job and changing careers. I talked almost exclusively about the old job, what I missed, and how I hated what I’d allowed it to do to me — how I had dumped the load of my despair on my wife, how I had been less of a father than I should have been. My therapist was trained in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and she helped me to recognize the rising feeling of panic and the downward spiral of depression, and how to nip those feelings in the bud with coping strategies like deep breathing and self-distraction.
Therapy was good for me, but I also recognize its limitations. One valid critique of CBT is that it provides surface-level salve for the wounds of capitalism, effectively making us more pliant and efficient workers. I’ve tried to guard myself against complacency on that front. To quote Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, “We must convert widespread mental health problems from medicalized conditions into effective antagonisms.”
In his introduction to Working, Terkel observed that the tragic figure of Willy Loman was growing younger by the year:
Perhaps it is this specter that most haunts working men and women: the planned obsolescence of people that is of a piece with the planned obsolescence of the things they make. Or sell. It is perhaps this fear of no longer being needed in a world of needless things that most clearly spells out the unnaturalness, the surreality of much that is called work today.
We’re disciplined by the fear of losing our jobs to automation or layoffs or the obliteration of entire industries. We’re taught to practice gratitude for having a job and health insurance at all, and to lay ourselves at the feet of the almighty “job creators” pleading protection from booms and busts that seem as inevitable as weather systems.
But none of this is inevitable. We don’t have to find contentment where we are. How restless do you feel?
I embedded a few songs about working in today’s newsletter:
“Vaping on the Job” by Dougie Poole (The Freelancer’s Blues, 2020)
“Simple Plan” by Pedro the Lion (Achilles Heel, 2004)
“Pay Your Rent” by Andrew Bryant (Ain’t It Like The Cosmos, 2018)
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