The “extraordinary dreams of ordinary people”

Working, Studs Terkel’s classic compilation of interviews with American workers was first published in 1970. In his preface to the 2004 edition, Adam Cohen describes these oral histories as “wistful dispatches from a distant era.” Over the intervening decades, he writes, “productivity has soared, but job satisfaction has plummeted” — citing a fall 2003 study by something called the Conference Board that showed that less than 49 percent of workers were satisfied with their jobs, down from 50% in 1995. He contrasts the pride that so many of these workers — cops and cashiers, brokers and bureaucrats — with “disgruntled workers who feel caged in by their jobs.”


Cohen may be wistful, but these stories are not. Although most of the people interviewed found some way to take some pride in their labors, the dissatisfied were in the great majority then as now. Consider Terkel’s opening sentence: “This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” Along with demonstrating a healthy respect for the comma, Terkel decries the dehumanizing nature of most jobs and champions the “search for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” That’s what he’s referring to when he describes constant astonishment at “the extraordinary dreams of ordinary people. No matter how bewildering the times, no matter how dissembling the official language, those we call ordinary are aware of sense of personal worth — or more often a lack of it — in the work they do.”


Who attributes meaning? Is that process internal or external? Is it an absolute, or does it vary with the nature of the job or the worker’s relation to the employer? Certainly it is a universal yearning, independent of age or class. We work not just to eat but for the satisfaction of making something, or making something happen. Certainly relentless capitalism has drummed into us the equation of income with meaning — with what gives work value, as opposed to a hobby, or tending the grandchildren. This is no favor to older workers, whose volunteer work is an important contribution to society. (A growing movement pays older volunteers a stipend that covers travel, lunch, supplies, etc. — the expenses of showing up.)


Those who love their jobs define themselves in terms of it. Those who hate their jobs define themselves in relation to that discontent. Both the push and the pull confer meaning. Ambivalence is always present.


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