Law in the Marketplace: Studs Terkel’s great book on work

John Cunningham

John Cunningham


For the Monitor

Published: 02-24-2024 9:00 PM

Studs Terkel was a superb author, actor and activist. He lived from 1912 to 2008. He wrote endlessly about Chicago, the great city where he resided. In 1972, he published his most famous and most widely read book: “Working — People Talk about What They Do All Day and How They Feel about What they Do.”

“Working” is lengthy — 589 pages. It consists of monologues by many dozens of individuals in many dozens of jobs (whom I’ll describe in general as “monologists”). These include, to mention just a few, steel workers, cab drivers, farmers, newspaper delivery boys, receptionists, airline stewardesses, bankers, actors, washroom attendants, spot welders, barbers, housewives, jockeys, baseball players, factory owners, publishers, gravediggers, lawyers, and priests.

Barack Obama said of “Working” that “reading these stories, I started to consider my own place in this world, and to understand how connected we are to one another.” Many other readers, including me, would say the same, and many readers who normally wouldn’t consider taking on the challenge of lengthy and complex books should consider doing so in the case of Working.

Terkel wrote “Working” when computers were just beginning to appear in business. And, of course, he wrote many years before the era of e-mails and social media, which in many ways have so profoundly changed the world of work. But in many ways, in the 52 years since Terkel published “Working,” work hasn’t changed. Here are a few thoughts that have come to me as I’ve worked my way through Working that I believe apply as much today as in 1972.

1. Different people want different things from their work. Many monologists expected nothing from their work but income. Some just wanted to be busy. Some loved the physical or mental challenges of their work. Some, without much reflection, had simply always wanted to sell or to make things. Some spent their lives searching for work that would give them meaning but never found it. Some wanted the prestige that comes from fancy titles and corner offices. But many wanted work that would give them a sense of meaning, and many wanted, as one monologist put it, “to leave something behind.”

2. Corporations as jungles. Many monologists who worked in corporations spoke bitterly about them. Their common description was that they were “jungles.” I’ve worked for some corporations. I’m sorry to say that in my experience, for some of them the word “jungle” applies quite nicely.

3. Factory jobs. Many monologists who had factory jobs spoke of how boring yet dangerous they were, how repetitious, demeaning and exploitive.

4. Farmers. Monologists who were farmers spoke of the endless hours they often had to work and the grave financial risks and limited income of their work. What little I know of contemporary farming suggests to me that in recent years, farming has become even more challenging.

5. “I want a business of my own.” Many monologists who worked for organizations in which they held no ownership interest longed to start a business of their own. A few did. In general, the results were good.

There are plenty of career books out there, and new ones constantly appear. But I know of no recent book that aims, like “Working,” to discuss contemporary work comprehensively. We need one.

John Cunningham is a lawyer licensed to practice law in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. He is of counsel to the law firm of McLane Middleton, P.A. Contact him at 856-7172 or His website is For access to all of his Law in the Marketplace columns, visit