March 10, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Studs Terkel’s magnum opus, ‘Working,’ turns 50

His ability to put subjects at ease was legendary. 


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As I prepared to teach my module on work this year, I realized Studs Terkel’s book Working celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2022. It’s a book that reflects and helps explain working-class life. 

I first encountered it as a student, and in the passing years Working — or to give it its rarely used full title, Working: People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What They Do – has shaped profoundly the way I think and teach about work.

First published in 1972, Working is a baggy collection of over 760 pages, most devoted to the reflections of ordinary Americans about their economic lives. From the Terkel archive, it’s clear that his interest in work was long standing and went well beyond the US.

I know the book well, but in writing this piece I leafed through it to think about the changing nature of work across that half a century. 

First published in 1972, Working is a baggy collection of over 760 pages, most devoted to the reflections of ordinary Americans about their economic lives. From the Terkel archive, it’s clear that his interest in work was long standing and went well beyond the US.

I thought it might be showing its age. Fifty years is a long career. 

Instead, I was reminded how vital Working is. 

To my surprise, many of the jobs and occupations Terkel asked about in his interviews still exist: receptionists and police officers, spot welders and carpenters, factory owners to waitresses and so on.  

For sure, the technology has changed. Few of the people in the pages of Working in 1972 would have seen a computer, less likely used one. But it’s harder than you might think to see obsolescence here.

Working remains fresh because Terkel’s humanity and warmth comes through on virtually every page. His character as well as his approach to the art of interviewing are artfully captured in his introduction. 

Just 17 pages long, the essay sums up for me what is most important about work – people. As he puts it beautifully:

It’s about a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying. Perhaps immortality, too, is part of the quest. To be remembered was the wish, spoken and unspoken, of the heroes and heroines of this book.

Terkel captures the timeless quality of profound contradictions, especially a worker’s sense of loving-hating work in the same moment

This may be true of all kinds of work, but it seems especially important in working-class labor. In an interview about Working, Terkel recalled a meter reader who spoke of the reality and fantasy of his work. 

While constantly vigilant for dogs, he fantasized about female encounters. As Terkel put it, “it makes the day go faster.”

Studs Terkel’s ability to put his subjects at ease was legendary. 

I once heard a story about him confronting a burglar in the process of robbing his home one night. Rather than call the cops, he sat the intruder down on his couch and interviewed him about his working life. I’m not sure of the story’s veracity, but I want it to be true!   

My students warm most to Terkel’s interest in the extraordinary nature of ordinary everyday life. They recognize his ability to see through the shallowness of the dramatic and showier aspects of contemporary life. My students recognize his interest in the capacity of ordinary people to live their lives. As he says in his introduction:

I realized quite early in this adventure that interviews, conventionally conducted, were meaningless. Conditioned clichés were certain to come. The question-and-answer techniques may be of some value in determining favored detergents, toothpaste and deodorants, but not in the discovery of men and women. There were questions, of course. But they were casual in nature-at the beginning: the kind you would ask while having a drink with someone; the kind he would ask you. The talk was idiomatic rather than academic. In short, it was conversation. In time, the sluice gates of dammed up hurts and dreams were opened.

Terkel is also a model for would be interviewers.  

It took time to realize the skill of getting people relaxed enough to talk about those “hurts and dreams” — especially working-class people. 

Middle-class people often seem entitled to be interviewed. They believe they have something to say or their lives obviously matter. 

By contrast, I’ve lost count of the times a working-class person modestly deflected my request for an interview, asking, “Why do you want to talk to me? I’m just a … .”

Since its publication, Working has been in print, but has also spawned adaptations, including guides for using the book in the classroom and Working: A Graphic Adaptation by Harvey Pekar and Paul Buhle

In the late 1970s, the book was the basis of a musical. There have also been acting workshops. Recently a theater project in Washington staged an updated version that included references to the pandemic.

We need to think more about new forms of work, and interviews can help us do that. Gig workers and others will tell different stories from what’s in Working, but in their narratives, we may hear similarities. 

It’s always been important to listen to the voices of those who work.  Sometimes they reinforce our perceptions. Often they confound them. Almost always, when one talks and, perhaps more importantly, listens to what people have to say, we learn about them and ourselves. 

Above all, we recognize the heart of Studs Terkel’s own working life: the quest for meaning and humanity in all the people he spoke to.

This article originally appeared in Working-Class Perspectives, a project of the Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and Working Poor at Georgetown University.

Tim Strangleman is a professor of sociology at the University of Kent in the UK.

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