It is an exploration of what makes work meaningful for people in all walks of life: from Lovin' Al the parking valet, to Dolores the waitress, from the fireman to the business executive, the narratives move constantly between mundane details, emotional truths and existential questioning.
Following a preface, a foreword, and an introduction, the volume is divided into nine "books," each of which contains one or more subsections that provide several accounts of working people's jobs and lives. These books tie their diverse content together with themes. These themes take the form of subtitles. Some book have only one theme (the theme of Book One is "Working the Land"); others have several.
Book One contains stories by a farmer, a farm worker, a farm woman, a deep miner and his wife, a strip miner, and a heavy equipment oprerator. Here is a sample:
Book Two recounts anecdotes by a receptionist, a hotel switchboard operator, a telephone operator, and a professor of communications, an airline stewardess, an airline reservationist, a model, an executive secretary, a hooker, a writer/producer, a copy chief, two actors, a press agent, an installment dealer, a telephone solicitor. Here is a sample:
Book Three has stories by a sanitation truck driver, a garbage man, a washroom attendant, a factory mechaninc, a domestic, a janitor, a doorman, two policemen, an industrial investigator, a photographer, and a film critic. Here's a sample:
Book Four tells the stories of two spot-welders, a utility man, a stock chaser, a plant manager, a general foreman, a local union president, two cabdrivers, a bus driver, an interstate truckdriver, a car hiker, and a car salesman. Here's a sample:
Book Five narrates the tales of a barber, a hair stylist, a saleswoman, a dentist, a hotel clerk, a bar pianist, an elevator starter, an ex-salesman, a bank teller, an auditor, an organizer, an order filler in a shoe factory, a mail carrier, a gas meter reader, a supermarket box boy, a supermarket checker, a skycap, a felter in a luggage factory, a waitress, and two housewives. Here's a sample:
Book Six contains the stories of a bookbinder, a pharmacist, a piano tuner, a realty broker, a yacht broker, two stockbrokers, a project coordinator, a government relations coordinator, a process clerk, and an organizer. Here's a sample:
Book Seven's narratives involve those of a jockey, a baseball player, a sports press agent, a tennis player, a hockey player, a football coach, a radio executive, a factory owner, a bank audit department head, an ex-boss, the ex-boss' daughter, an ex-president of a conglomerate/consultant, "Ma and Pa Courage," and three retirees. Here's a sample:
Book Eight's stories are about a copy boy, a publisher, a proofreader, a department store manager, a jazz musician, an executive, the director of a bakery cooperative, a hospital aide, a baby nurse, a public school teacher, an alternative school teacher, an occupational therapist, a patient's representative, a practical nurse in an old people's home, a memorial counselor, and a grave digger. Here's a sample:
Book Nine recounts the narratives of a tree nursery attendant, a carpenter/poet, an editor, an industrial designer, a nun to naprapath, an ex-salesman/ farmer, a lawyer, a librarian, a stone cutter, a service station owner, the service station's son and partner, a steelworker, the steelworker's son (a priest), an adult education teacher, a freight elevator operator, a policeman, and a fireman. Here's a sample:
Among the many who speak their minds about their work and their lives are baseball player Steve Hamilton ("To be perfectly honest with you, I'm ready to quit"), actor Rip Torn ("I don't have any contempt for people who do commercials") and football coach George Allen ("You have to put a priority on everything you do each day").
The book illustrates both the good and the bad aspects of life in an earlier, in some ways, more innocent, time.
The job titles, like the speeches themselves of those who recount the daily tasks and responsibilities of their jobs, reflect the sexism and racism of the day--a day in which electric typewriters were still used, computers were just appearing on the scene, and people sought meaning as well as a paycheck in the chores they performed.
As the "Foreword" to the book points out, "Mr. Terkel found, work was a search, sometimes successful, sometimes not, 'for daily meaning as well as daily bread' . . . . The oral histories in Working are wistful dispatches from a distant era. . . when management practices and computers were just beginning to transform the American workplace. In the last thirty years, productivity has soared but job satisfaction has plummeted. It is hard to read Working without wondering what has gone wrong."
A bestseller when first published in 1974, the book also inspired the Broadway musical of the same title, and a "companion volume," edited thirty years later by a team (mainly John Bowe, Melissa Bowe and Sabin Streeter), Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs.