The Meaning of Labor in “Working in the 21st Century”


Mark Larson’s new book, Working in the 21st Century, pays the most sincere form of tribute to Studs Terkel’s remarkable oral history Working, published fifty years ago. It not only emphasizes the impact of the earlier text but continues its efforts to provide a space for those “who are not often handed a microphone nor called into the spotlight” to talk about what they do and why. As Larson emphasizes, this last question, of what motivates people, is central to Terkel’s project and his own. He wants to know “they showed up, again,” even when things were difficult. The responses he receives are varied but the answer is never simply money. Working in the 21st Century demonstrates that labor is not a purely economic process but is always also, as Marx insisted, a way of negotiating a position in the social and natural world. Work produces meaning as well as resources. For many, perhaps most people, it is central to their understanding of who they are.

Terkel recognized that listening to the “voices of the people who parked your car, poured your water at the diner, sold you shoes, built your cars, told you to put your seatback in the upright position” involved listening to their explanations of their work as an integral part of a meaningful life. He knew this partly because he felt the same. As his long-term associate and transcriptionist Sydney Lewis notes, he “really wanted to matter” and knew others did as well; all his books are about “people doing something and wanting to feel like they matter, that they count, that their existence is for something.” Terkel did matter, not least because he helped others to matter or, more accurately, to show that their lives were already meaningful. He provided them with the space and opportunity to assert the significance of their experience and, consequently, themselves. There can be few clearer demonstrations of his continued importance than Working in the 21st Century, a four-hundred-page testament to the urgent relevance of his life and thought.

Larson, like Terkel, is an effective, unobtrusive interviewer, allowing his subjects to give accounts of their own lives in their own words. This is a particular achievement as many of the conversations were conducted over Zoom during the coronavirus pandemic. COVID is one of the pressures that shape the text. It obviously had a significant impact on the experience of work, not just for the nurses and contact tracers struggling to contain the virus, but for almost everyone; the teachers forced to move their classes online, the custodian cleaning a deserted school whilst worrying about his health, the carpenter who is “a little scared” to return to the offices he helps remodel because his wife is pregnant and he does not want to bring the disease home. It also started a conversation about the functions of labor and the society it contributes to. The crisis presented an opportunity for change. 

Bradley Terrance, a middle school principal insists that although there will be “a strong push to try to get back to normal” once restrictions end he does not “want to go back to the way it was.” The view is shared by Suzanna Gordon, an English teacher who notes that the “pandemic has really highlighted social inequities,” and that she is worried that “we will go back to normal, and we won’t have learned to do things differently.” Her hope that “all this can matter,” emphasizes a desire for change, which would include prioritizing and rewarding work that is both fulfilling and contributes to the common good. The conversations about “essential workers” during the pandemic provided a chance to do this, which, shamefully, was not taken.

The desire to do good work, in both senses of the phrase, connects many if not most of the contributors to Larson’s book. It is often the reason people choose their profession. Dr. Hillary McClaren, an obstetrician-gynecologist focused on abortion care, insists that “[y]ou pick this job because you think it’s the most valuable thing you can be doing in the world.” In many instances, this conviction is so strong it does not feel like a choice at all. Mona Walker, a deputy chief of police, tells Larson she feels “the profession is… a calling for service,” a view echoed by Vanessa Sheridan, who says her work advising businesses on transgender and LGBTQ awareness is “something I felt called to do.” People’s desire to matter is expressed partly through doing a job that matters, which means one that matters to others as well as themselves. Their belief in the social value of their labor is strong enough to sustain them in exhausting, difficult, poorly paid, and even traumatic work. As Mary Carol Racelis, a clinical nurse specialist, puts it, if “you are enjoying what you’re doing and the people you work with, and you feel like you’re making a difference, you can put up with a lot.” This does not mean that people accept their exploitation. Jack Victor, who has ten years’ experience as a wildland firefighter, notes that he is paid just $16 an hour for doing a job so stressful that there are “more suicide deaths… than line-of-duty deaths” amongst his peers. There is, rightly, “massive resentment” amongst those in the profession, directed at “agency heads and the lawmakers” who have allowed this, but there is also “tons of pride” in the work. The conditions are the problem, as is the lack of recognition and respect they imply.

Work is not the only thing that matters, and there is a compelling argument that it should matter less than it does. It is nonetheless one of the primary ways in which people try to understand themselves, their place in the world, and their relation to others. It is about more than earning money. It provides individuals with meaning and structure, a way to contribute to the common good, to be useful. The interviews, which focus on those with little “access to significant forums for expressing their views” are fascinating and varied in their own right and a pleasure to read. They are also life-affirming, consistently asserting, in all their variety, a sense of shared existence and purpose. Larson writes that he was “deeply moved and fascinated” when he first read Terkel’s Working, and his own book elicits the same responses. It is an important contribution to an important tradition of writing.


Working in the 21st Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation

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by Mark Larson

Agate Midway

Published on February 20, 2024

Ben Clarke

Ben Clarke is Associate Professor of English at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. He is the author of “Orwell in Context,” co-author of “Understanding Richard Hoggart”, and co-editor of “Working-Class Writing.” He is currently editing the “Routledge Companion to Working-Class Literature” and co-editing “The Idea of the Lumpenproletariat”.


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