Jan. 23, 2024
Originally published in 1974, Studs Terkel's Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do became an instant classic. The book presented an impressive collection of interviews with everyday Americans talking honestly and openly about their jobs — everyone from police officers and welders to bank tellers and even a piano tuner. The text was required reading for a generation of sociologists, political scientists, union organizers, journalists, and grassroots activists concerned with the plight of the working class. It was such a hit that it was shortlisted for the National Book Award and adapted as a Broadway musical.
As scholars and practitioners thought more about the social and psychological aspects of cities through the 1970s, the pathos and empathy captured in Terkel's interviews attracted the attention of urban planners, politicians, and policy makers eager to make sense of labor, management, industrial relations, and job creation during a period of profound transformation in the U.S. economy.
Over the intervening 50 years, the fundamentals of our economy have shifted so profoundly that a fresh take is in order. Fortunately, we've just been provided with one — in a documentary format — thanks to former president Barack Obama's Higher Ground Productions and a team at Netflix.
Directed by Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat) and hosted by the former president, a new four-part docuseries, Working: What We Do All Day, delivers an essential update to Terkel's book. True to these roots, the series — for which Obama won an Emmy in January — focuses on the voices and humanity of actual workers, allowing these people and their lived experiences to take center stage. Studies and data may provide important background for planners to think about job losses, manufacturing transitions, and shifting demographics, but stories of real-world workers talking about their lives put faces to these statistics.
In addition to some excellent interviews, a fresh filmmaking style, and punchy humor, Obama and Suh have provided thoughtful organization to help make sense of the new economy we are creating and living through. The episodes focus on different levels of workers – from front-line service staff and gig workers to management, professional, and creative class workers. By tracing these jobs across different sectors, we understand the roles played by everyone as part of the whole, as well as the inherent conflicts and contradictions that may be baked into the dynamics of work.
Voice-over narration and archival footage help contextualize these current stories, tracing patterns back to the Great Depression and New Deal policies, changes to global manufacturing, American lifestyles during and following World War II, and the growth of entire new industries related to computing and biotechnology.
As planners continue to reassess and rebuild our downtowns, regional economies, educational systems, public services, transportation networks, energy infrastructure, and our entire communities in the shadow of COVID-19 — and in anxious anticipation of emerging artificial intelligence (AI) bots — making sense of these changes is as important as ever. And, as every good planner knows, listening directly to the voices of our friends, neighbors, and constituents who are directly affected is the first step in understanding.
The docuseries is currently available for streaming on Netflix.
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As a bonus for those who enjoy learning what work is like for the busy people in your neighborhood, you might want to check out these films by award-winning directors, each exploring the world of work through the more artistic lens of fiction:
Perfect Days (2023)
This whimsical feature from German director Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire, Alice in the Cities) follows the daily chores of Hirayama (Kōji Yakusho), the most optimistic service worker you've never met. The hero's rosy outlook and cheerful disposition is all the more impressive given his job: he is one on a team of workers charged with cleaning a battery of public toilets in downtown Tokyo. In addition to providing a heartwarming portrait of the value of work and the pride of a job well done, planners will particularly marvel at the diverse portfolio of public toilets employed in this busy city, including one with an amazing suite and computer-controlled privacy glass.
Perfect Days is coming soon to select theaters.
Man Push Cart (2005)
Employing a compelling cinéma vérité style, independent filmmaker Ramin Bahrani empathetically captures the daily plight of Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi), a push-cart vendor in midtown Manhattan. Along with Ahmad, we wake early, struggle to navigate busy streets, and absorb a daily barrage of hurried interactions, insults, and outright harassment (some of which may recall recent news coverage of a similar altercation).
Man Push Cart is currently available for streaming on the Criterion Channel.
An offbeat offering written and directed by the king of offbeat offerings, Jim Jarmusch (Down by Law, Mystery Train, Only Lovers Left Alive), Paterson is both the name of the lead character and the city in New Jersey where the action takes place. (It's also a reference to the epic poem by William Carlos Williams, named after the author's hometown.) Paterson is an introverted and occasionally wistful bus driver for NJ Transit (played by the aptly named Adam Driver), who spends his days driving, observing, and thinking about the streets he travels down and the people who inhabit them. In addition to working as a driver, Paterson is also a poet. Through his perceptive eyes and curious mind, we too come to see the poetry in his city.
Paterson is currently available for streaming on Amazon Prime.