In "producing something," workers elevate their status in life by justifying that their work is meaningful not only to them, but to society, for they contribute to the economic machinery of capitalism everyday.
The following passages from various interviews in "Working" demonstrate the concepts of "producing something" and "making sense" as the avenues through which workers momentarily suspend or escape their marginalization in American society:
The *****in' world's so *****ed up, the country's *****ed up. But the firemen, you actually see them produce. You see them put out a fire. You see them come out with babies in their hands. You see them give mouth-to-mouth when a guy's dying. You can't get around that *****. That's real. To me, that's what I want to be.
"I worked in a bank. You know, it's just paper. it's not real. Nine to five and it's *****. You're lookin' at numbers. But I can look back and say, 'I helped put out a fire. I helped save somebody.' It shows something I did on this earth."
This passage highlights the crux of the concept, "producing something." Workers create value in their jobs and tasks because of the emotional benefits that they get from it. While economic and financial gain becomes a crucial consideration in choosing to keep a job, the emotional benefits that the worker gets from it becomes the ultimate factor that a worker uses in order to determine whether s/he wants to keep the kind of job that s/he has for most of his/her life.
Thiessen (2002) generated the findings that one's motivation to get a job or work in a particular field is mainly influenced not by economic gain or benefits, but due to emotional benefits that the worker will get from it. He found out that more than anything, it is the individual's parents' work which highly influenced the individual's decision to seek work within the same field or area as his/her parents have worked for. Moreover, apart from the field of specialization sought by individuals in finding work, there are also specific jobs that are synonymous or equivalent to the individual's social class. Thiessen's findings therefore demonstrated that social class is another factor influential to the maintenance of specific work or job descriptions under the same social class or within a social class in the society.
Completing the social landscape of the workforce in America is the general perception that humans are considered and transformed into machines, made to do tasks and responsibilities that are sometimes beyond what they can accomplish or are compensated to accomplish. A growing trend and response from the increasingly tired workers of American society is a journey towards self-realization, wherein the solution to alleviate disenfranchisement is not to "make sense" of one's purpose and justify that one has "produced something" significant for society, but simply to acknowledge that they are part of a big machinery that keeps the American capitalist economy operating. These realizations are echoed in the following interviewees' responses to their work and their feelings about their work, as excerpted by Terkel:
I'm a machine," says a spot welder. "I'm caged," says the bank teller, and echoes the hotel clerk. "I'm a mule," says the steel worker. "A monkey can do what I do," says the receptionist. "I'm less than a farm implement," says the migrant worker. "I'm an object," says the high fashion model. Blue collar and white collar call upon the identical phrase: "I'm a robot."
These passages from workers in America highlights the responses disenfranchised workers have adopted in order to alleviate or escape the state of marginalization they feel within the society. The first response is to "make sense" of their reality as a worker, justifying their worth not through quantitative, but through qualitative means, on how they have produced work that is considered important or valuable to American society. However, a more radical response adopted by most workers today is the path towards self-realization and -acceptance, using reality as their way of alleviating their disenfranchisement. That is, by accepting that they are parts of the whole economic machinery of capitalist America, they are able to perceive their work and themselves (as workers) as parts of a whole, but not necessarily "romanticizing" this notion as equivalent to 'contributing something important to society.'
Summary: Disenfranchisement of Specific Sectors in American Society
In the preceding sections, Terkel's interviews with America's workers demonstrate two emergent themes relating social class and work in the country: the disenfranchisement of women workers, and of workers as members of the labor force, in general. The disenfranchisement of women workers in American society is manifested through the prevalence of non-standard forms of employment available to them, the lack of choice, and lack of government support that makes them susceptible to power plays and gender discrimination in their work. Disenfranchisement among American workers, in general, have resulted to two different responses as workers' way of alleviating their disenfranchisement: "making sense" of their role as significant contributors to capitalist America, or by simply accepting that in capitalist America, workers are just part of a bigger machinery that makes American economy work and efficient.
Houseman, S. And M. Osawa. (2003). Nonstandard work in developed economies: causes and consequences.
Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
Terkel, S. (1985). Working: people talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. NY: Pantheon Books.
Thiessen, V. (2002). "The social distribution of youth's images of work." Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Vol. 39, Issue…[continue]
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