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Feature

Tales from a New World

Not Working provides an in-depth look at a new type of American and reveals a new type of American story. 

Thirty years ago, author Studs Terkel introduced the literary world to the American worker. On page 635 of Working, one of Terkel’s collections of oral histories, we meet Pat Zimmerman, headmaster of an alternative school in Chicago. Zimmerman oversees 68 students, half of them poor white Southerners, the other half Chicago street kids of various backgrounds. It’s not a cushy job, and Zimmerman seems bent on dispelling any myth that it could be.

 “I run into people who say how much they admire what I do,” he tells Terkel. “It’s embarrassing. I don’t make any judgments about my work, whether it’s great or worthless. It’s just what I do best. It’s the only job I want to do. I work hard because I have to. I get tired. At 4 I feel as though I am ready to die.” He laughs. “I don’t feel bad about it. This is my life. I just am.”

Working, published in 1974, is filled with these little moments of existential wonder, uttered by the most everyday of philosophers. A collection of stories about work, it’s told to the author by the workers themselves—secretaries, baseball players, garbage collectors and senators. The great revelation of the book is not that people are capable of so many different things, though that is made abundantly clear. It’s that work is the social glue that holds so many disparate lives together, that gives them meaning. 

The world has changed dramatically in the decades since Working was published. Long-term employment and its attendant security is an anachronism. Long-term unemployment, on the other hand, is on the rise. The Zen-like mantra “I just am” is incomplete without the very modern addendum of anxiety: “But what will I be tomorrow?”

 

Last month, an unofficial sequel to Working was published by Penguin Books. Written by New York author DW Gibson, Not Working is a tome comparable in heft and style to Terkel’s original. Gibson’s work, however, tells a different story, through 66 personal accounts collected during a three-month cross-country tour: that of the unemployed American worker.

In the spring of 2011, when the project began, the unemployment rate in the United States hovered around 9 percent, much higher than the 5 percent unemployment in 1974, but down from the peak of 10 percent in October 2009. That was a year after the economic crash that changed the social landscape of the U.S. and beyond, introducing the term “Great Recession” into the American lexicon. 

That spring, Gibson was having dinner with Colin Robinson, a veteran of the publishing industry and champion of socially conscious writers like Noam Chomsky, Lewis Lapham and Matt Taibbi. Gibson and Robinson talked about the stories in Working, which Robinson had helped reissue. Then Robinson told him his own story.

“He told me about getting laid off from a big U.S. publisher,” Gibson recalls. “He was telling the story of the day he lost that job, the specifics of it and how he had to put all this stuff into a box, but he couldn’t take the box with him right away because they wanted to go through the box and make sure he wasn’t taking anything that wasn’t his. They were going to ship his belongings to him.”

In the tale that Robinson told, Gibson heard echoes of the stories in Terkel’s book. But whereas Terkel told of a blossoming, post-World War II America that had fostered great social shifts and almost constant economic growth, the larger story Robinson’s tale foretold was one of economic stagnation and personal humiliation.

Gibson understood that millions of Americans have gone through similar travails. “It’s a shared experience,” he says, “and it could be a cathartic, helpful thing if people started telling these stories.”

Not long after that night, Gibson ran the idea for Not Working by Robinson. Robinson signed on, committing an advance to fund Gibson’s travels. He also agreed to publish a first edition with his new company OR Books, the small, experimental press that scored a best-seller in 2009 with the Sarah Palin satire Going Rouge and, in February 2012, would publish a history of Occupy Wall Street.

With the book deal in the works, Gibson decided he wanted a visual component to the project. He called up Seattle filmmaker MJ Sieber and invited him to record interviews with his camera.

Gibson and Sieber had been friends since childhood, when they shared a paper route in Irvine, Calif. After college, Gibson had moved to New York to find success as a writer; Sieber went to Seattle, where he attended Cornish College of the Arts and became a working actor. The two continued working together, first on film shorts and then, at the time of Gibson’s meeting with Robinson, on their first full-length feature called Haven’t Seen a Soul in Years.

Sieber and Gibson put their feature film on hold and were soon journeying through the summer heat of the American Southwest. Joined by friend, playwright and Cornish graduate Mallery Avidon, they travelled in the author’s non-air-conditioned, shock-free Jeep, collecting stories of the Americans who lost their jobs after everything started to fall apart. The route was dictated by the places with the highest home foreclosure rates: Fresno, Calif.; Reno, Nev.; Columbus, Ohio; Athens, Ga. In those cities and between, the crew sought out people who had recently lost their jobs.

“It only struck me after the fact how truly audacious the request we were making was,” Gibson says. “We met people outside of unemployment offices and churches and job clubs. We were trying to get people to stop, but not only trying to get them to stop, trying to get them to go to the Popeye’s Chicken and get a cup of coffee with us and sit there for two hours and tell us a story they might prefer to forget. That is a tall order!”

After three months and thousands of miles, they’d asked 500 people to talk. Two hundred agreed to tell their stories. Sixty-six made it into the pages of Not Working. Seventeen will show up in the documentary.

The stories of unemployment that Gibson and Sieber offer are as varied as the myriad jobs that preceded them, but they’re tied together by several themes. There’s at least a little anger in each of these stories; a sense of abandonment in most. There’s often disbelief, as well as humility in the face of an unpredictable world. There’s resignation to the state of things, and there’s resolve to make the new reality work. If Terkel’s workers were everyday philosophers well-versed in the text of their working lives, Gibson’s non-workers are neophytes embarking on a very different way of life, often stumbling along their way to understanding.

 

The uncertainty of Not Working stands in marked contrast to Pat Zimmerman’s “I just am” fortitude, but Working itself was not without anxiety. As Terkel finished his book, the oil crisis of 1973 was in full swing. Raised in the shadow of the ’60s, young people doubted the righteousness of their parents and carried an attitude of discontent that extended from politics to employment. Many of the workers interviewed felt ambivalent about what had become of their work as economic and political power continued to change the role of the worker. It was a shift of which Terkel was aware.

“In the ’30s, not many questioned their lot,” he wrote in Working’s introduction. “Those rebels who found flaws in our society were few in number. This time around, ‘the system stinks,’ was a phrase almost as recurrent as ‘more or less’.”

Not Working captures life further along that shift, its appearance as timely as its predecessor’s. In the last three decades, the machinations of the global economy have gutted manufacturing jobs from the U.S., diminished the influence of workers’ unions and caused stagnated wages for the middle class. Even for those employed, work life is fractured. No longer can you stay at one company for your entire life and retire with a pension. Gibson and Sieber’s project is a picture of a people coming to grips with the fact that they don’t know where next year’s paycheck is coming from—or even next week’s.

In his introduction, Gibson dubs this new type of being “the Precariat,” a term he borrows from cultural critic Andrew Ross, whom he quotes: “Postindustrial capitalism thrives on actively disorganizing employment and socioeconomic life in general, so that it can profit from vulnerability, instability and desperation.”

This fundamental disorganization is the reality of the lives explored in Not Working. It exists not only in what the non-workers say, but also in how they say it. Terkel’s subjects are nuanced and eloquent in their storytelling. Some of their eloquence is attributable to Terkel’s expertise with oral history (though Gibson is no slouch, either), but much of it stems from the nature of the story: Working catches people in the rhythm of their everyday lives.

By contrast, the storytellers in Not Working speak in the midst of lives disrupted. They stumble, spit out fragments and dart from one subject to another. Between those fragments, however, they show that, as a society, we’re more than where we work.

Deep into Not Working, the reader meets Erik Hill, a former salesman for a carpet and tile-cleaning company who was laid off in 2009. He was living in Tacoma, awaiting the birth of his son, when Gibson and Sieber came calling.

“If I really sit back and think about what’s happening, I’m probably going to run away,” he says. “The best laid plans didn’t really happen. What you do is you learn to deal with where you’re at in that situation. And you go, okay, this is where I’m at this moment, these are the cards I have and I’ll play the best I can with my ability. And if it doesn’t work out we’ll reshuffle and try something different.”

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