The interview subjects in Studs Terkel's book Working run the gamut from farm wife to university professor, but all are able to be articulate about what it is that they do for a living. However, some basic patterns emerge upon examination of a representative sample of Terkel's interviews. The first thing to note is the relationship of education to work: in some sense, these people are all concerned with how their education did or did not prepare them for the work that they do. A second point to note is the sense of institutional difficulty, in how the individual relates to the larger structures of the workplace -- this can take the form of labor organizations like labor, or the corporations, or even competitors. The final thing that is worth noting in Terkel's interviews is whether or not the individual feels dehumanized or alienated from the work: in some sense, job satisfaction seems to correlate to independence and a sense of personal validation. A closer look at some remarks made by Terkel's subjects will bear out these observations.
Obviously education in America is largely a preparation for entering the American economy. Some forty years after Terkel's original publication, this is clearer than ever, as the economy is shifting to a new paradigm with Silicon Valley replacing industrial production -- if education does not address the use of these new technologies, the students will be completely unemployable. However, it is worth noting that many of Terkel's interview subjects relate their own position directly to the education that they received. A memorable example early in the book comes with the seventy-seven-year-old "farm wife," Aunt Katherine Haynes. Aunt Katherine Haynes is clearly one of the oldest interview subjects in the book, so she belongs to a truly distant past by the standards of 2014. Yet she notes that her economic and social position has a lot to do with her education, or rather her lack of it: as she memorably notes, "I was just raised an old hillbilly and I'll die one…They wasn't much to think on when you didn't have no education. I didn't get half through the third reader, so I've got no education at all." (Terkel 15). Terkel faithfully reproduces her manner of speech and it is easy to believe that she has received almost no education, and crucially her work has largely been domestic: she worked in the house or on the farm, basically enabling what sounds like a subsistence living. For the heavy machinery operator Hub Dillard, formal education is -- in his opinion -- largely irrelevant to the job that he does, for which only experience can prepare a worker. In Dillard's words, "What we do you can never learn out of a book. You could never learn to run a hoist or a tower crane by reading. It's experience and common sense." (Terkel 23). But if we move up to white collar occupations, we can see that education is still a primary focus of how workers define themselves. We may recall Terkel's interview with Sharon Atkins, a receptionist at a large office. Atkins was not expecting to do the sort of work she is doing when Terkel interviews her: as she says, "I was out of college, an English Lit. major. I looked around for copywriting jobs. The people they wanted had majored in journalism. Okay, the first myth that blew up in my face is that a college education will get you a job. I changed my opinion of receptionists because now I'm one." (Terkel 29). The implication here is that perhaps Atkins would have chosen a different educational path if she had known the job she wanted required a different major, but at the same time her frustration is understandable. There is not much difference between majoring in English and majoring in journalism, the only difference perhaps is the amount of attention paid to commercial and advertising concerns. But we are led to believe that Atkins could very well do the job of a copywriter, but has ended up as a receptionist because of a quirk of her educational path.
Another theme that runs through Terkel's various interviews is the idea of frustration or intimidation with larger power structures, whether corporate or financial. This parallels a sense of identification with the larger power structures represented by organized labor and unions. Both issues are memorably summarized in the early interview with Roberto Acuna, a Latino farm worker who has turned into a labor organizer. Acuna describes his decision to leave the farm work thus: "I saw the need to change the California feudal system, to change the lives of farm workers, to make these huge corporations feel they're not above anybody…I try to organize for the United Farm Workers of America" (Terkel 7). But this is essentially a factory farming system, and it is interesting to see that the family farmer interviewed by Terkel, Pierce Walker, sees the larger financial system as basically making survival increasingly difficult for individuals: "As a farmer the return on your investment is so small now that it isn't really worthwhile. A younger person cannot start farming unless they have help from the father or somebody. Cause you have to be almost able to retire a rich man to start out. The only way the farmers are making it today is the ones in business keep getting bigger, to kinda offset the acreage, the margin income. I don't know what's gonna happen in the future. I'm afraid it's gonna get rough in time to come" (Terkel 3). In both of these cases, we realize that individual agency is increasingly difficult to exert in a marketplace dominated by large corporate and financial forces. Yet the faith that is placed by someone like Acuna in organized labor is not necessarily shared by the people who participate in unions: the mine worker Joe Haynes memorably complains that he does not think that the union has adequately protected the interests of workers like him in negotiations: "I think the United Mine Workers has let us down a little bit. I think they sold us out is what I do. They teamed up with the operators, I think" (Terkel 16). This may be paranoid on Haynes's part, but it represents a very real sense that large institutional structures -- whether corporations or unions -- may not adequately pay enough attention to individuals.
This leads to a sense of individual alienation and disenfranchisement which runs throughout a number of Terkel's other interviews. The most basic theme is summed up by the strip miner Bob Sanders, who claims "I don't think anyone's gonna say their work's satisfyin', gratifyin', unless you're in business for yourself. I don't think you're satisfied workin' for the other person." (22). This sense that personal control over one's own work position is the only thing that can prevent alienation. But at the same time, the vast gulf between institutional authority and individual agency can be the cause of this alienation, as Sanders himself notes in the gap between workers wages and the price of mining equipment: "You go on a piece of equipment and say it's worth ten million, fifteen million dollars. You don't expect people to go out there and take care of that for thirty or forty dollars a day. If you got that kind of money to spend for equipment…it just doesn't add up." (Terkel 21-2) Overall these small financial differences can make a large difference in the lives of individuals. It certainly lends color to the overworked and underpaid hotel switchboard operator Frances Swenson, who notes the way in which management promised a raise than reneged upon it: "I worked 125 hours last two weeks. We asked the boss why we didn't get time and a half overtime. He says, 'Well, the girls at the front desk are getting it, I don't see why you don't. You'll get it starting the first of the month.' We were informed today we were not going to get it." (Terkel 33). What is most noteworthy is that an explanation for the change was not thought necessary by management. To a certain degree these workers do feel dehumanized. We can see it even more clearly in the testimony of another telephone operator, Heather Lamb. She describes her workplace routine as follows: "You have a number -- mine's 407. They put your number on your tickets, so if you made a mistake they'll know who did it. You're just an instrument. You're there to dial a number. It would be just as good for them to punch in the number." (Terkel 37). Not only are Lamb and her co-workers reduced to a mere identification number, as though Bell Telephone were Auschwitz, but more importantly the identification number is only there to assign blame if a mistake is made. It is no accident that Lamb describes her job in the most dehumanizing possible terms: "just an instrument." (It is also noteworthy…