‘Working’ people have an audience

Breaking down jobs stories
October 30, 2014

(Robert R. McElroy / Getty)

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Studs Terkel’s groundbreaking book, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, a collection of interviews with working Americans, from fashion models to coal miners. Working established an audience for first-person stories about real, everyday lives. As such, it has influenced storytellers and artists through the decades, and its spirit and style are very much evident in our digital-era media–from This American Life to The Moth storytelling project to podcasts. A look at Working‘s ongoing legacy.

Videopolis’ 1975 documentary It’s a Living featured six different workers talking about their lives and jobs, plus Terkel himself.

The first musical adaptation of Working premiered in 1977 and numerous productions have followed up until today.

James Taylor’s “Millworker,” originally written for Working the musical, was released on his 1979 album Flag.

Working, long a fixture in high-school classrooms, got its own Teaching Guide in 2001.

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Also in 2001: Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs was published.

Discovery Channel’s hit show Dirty Jobs (2005-2012) profiled people working unusual (and unusually dirty) jobs, from roadkill collectors to fish processors. A septic tank cleaner likened host Mike Rowe to a TV-version of Terkel, whom Rowe himself calls an influence for his new CNN show about American jobs.

Harvey Pekar created a graphic novel adaptation of Working in 2009.

Storycorps’ Work theme includes 159 recordings of people talking about what they do.

In a new Slate podcast, launched in October and titled Working, David Plotz explores how 17 different Americans do their jobs (including Stephen Colbert and porn star Jessica Drake).

In 2012, DW Gibson published a book about Americans affected by the recession, Not Working: People Talk About Losing a Job and Finding Their Way in Today’s Changing Economy.

For the 2014 Studs Terkel festival in Chicago, artist Tucker Rae-Grant created a sculpture that included a paperback copy of Working (which someone stole during the festival).

In These Times writer Analeah Rosen is conducting a series of interviews with people in jobs that didn’t exist when Working was published.

Radio Diaries produces portraits of people, some of whom work rare jobs, and is creating podcasts of the old Working tapes (some of which have never been heard before) in partnership with production agency Project&. They will be published over the course of the coming year.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.