Magazine | September 20, 2010, Issue

Labor Pains

The world of work is much on John Derbyshire’s mind

August lived up to its reputation as the Silly Season this year, the news dominated for several days by JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who quit his job August 9 in a sensational manner, venting his grievances over the plane’s PA system and then exiting via the emergency chute. (Fortunately the plane was stationary on the tarmac.) Though there are open questions about what triggered the incident, Slater’s deed returned an echo from many a wage slave’s breast, and he was a folk hero for a week or so there in the dog days of high summer.

The world of ordinary work and its discontents makes the news much less often than, it seems to me, it ought — when you consider, I mean, the sheer quantity of work that gets done every day. When such stories do show up in the press, I take down my copy of Studs Terkel’s 1974 bestseller, Working.

Terkel was an old FDR lefty, a graduate of the Federal Writers’ Project in fact. He made his name with oral history, which is to say, writing down what people told him about their lives. Working is in that genre. Terkel sat 133 people down in front of his tape recorder and had them talk about their daily work. The occupations cover a good range: jockey, bureaucrat, car salesman, dentist, miner, stockbroker . . . Some have drifted towards extinction since 1974: switchboard operator, elevator starter, supermarket bagger. A handful of the participants are famous: Rip Torn, actor; Pauline Kael, film critic.

Working didn’t offer any insights into Steven Slater’s particular vexations. There was no such thing as a flight attendant in 1974. The nearest subject Terkel gives us is an “airline stewardess,” who grumbles at length about the rigors of “stew school” (“We’d go through a whole week of make-up and poise. . . . They showed you how to smoke a cigarette”) and the wandering hands of her clientele (“The majority of passengers do make passes”). It all seems like a very long time ago.

(National Lampoon did a clever parody of Terkel’s book in its November 1975 issue under the title “Shirking.” We heard from several people who make a living doing nothing much: cop, panhandler, disc jockey, auto mechanic, etc. Most were fictional, but in a nice recursive touch they included Studs Terkel, writer: “This kid from the university . . . operates the tape recorder. . . . I just pretend to listen, with my Pat O’Brien look on my kisser. Then Cathy types ’em up.” Also the late Ed McMahon: “I sit down and talk to Johnny for a few minutes. Mostly what I do is laugh at his jokes. . . . I have what’s known in the business as a hearty laugh. So I laugh for a few minutes and then I’m done for the night.”)

#page#The world of work has been much on my mind lately, with Mrs. Straggler retraining for a new career and our daughter earning her first paychecks from a summer internship. I am shamefully aware that I have never been much good at work, though I’ve been employed in a wide range of occupations. There was always something that seemed more worth thinking about than the job at hand: a book I wanted to write, a trip I wanted to take, the girl in the next office. This is not unusual. Unworldly, imaginative, bookish people rarely make good employees. One such, the poet Philip Larkin, asked, “Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my life?” Another, Mark Twain, told us that “work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and . . . play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” Idleness is of course soul-sapping and, as the old sailor’s preventive for seasickness has it, one must keep busy with one’s eyes on the horizon; but busyness somehow loses all its savor when one is paid a wage for it.

That’s a bad attitude, of course. A great many people find satisfaction in their work, even work of the lowest kind. I was once a kitchen porter, teamed up with another young ne’er-do-well who had surprising zest for our greasy, ill-paid labors. In occasional moments of idleness he would concoct quizzes to keep our minds on the job: “Name the location of every waste bin in this establishment . . .”

And then there are jobs that are so much fun it seems absurd to call them work at all. The rumor is that when big-name Hollywood actors are gathered together in private, there comes a point when they look at each other in silence for a moment, then all fall down laughing, thumping the carpet and shrieking in their helpless mirth: “To think they pay us for what we do! Hoo hoo hoo!” The labor market is a strange place. In strict justice, very desirable jobs should have negative salaries, as used to be the case, and perhaps still is, for waiters at the poshest hotels (who paid the maître d’ out of their abundant tips).

Biologically speaking, we were not made for work. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors back in the Paleolithic didn’t work much. “If they had full stomachs and their tools and weapons were in good shape . . . they hung out: They talked, gossiped, and sang.” (Cochran and Harpending, The 10,000 Year Explosion.) Real hard work came in with agriculture — and stayed with it, to judge by the still-current saying that “if you’ve once worked on a farm, nothing else ever seems like work.” With industrialization came the alternative of a twelve-hour day at the mill or down the mine. People resigned themselves somehow:

Men must work and women must weep;

And the sooner it’s over, the sooner to sleep.

Now work is ebbing. As machines get smarter and more productive we are slipping back to Paleolithic standards of idleness. Certainly the dignity of labor is a long-lost concept, swallowed up by the myth of “jobs Americans won’t do.” Where now are those novelists whose dust-jacket biographies boasted heroic lists of past employments: lumberjack, carnie barker, firefighter? Jonathan Franzen, our current literary lion, seems never to have done anything but write. Perhaps Steven Slater will give us a novel.

John Derbyshire — Mr. Derbyshire is a former contributing editor of National Review.

In This Issue


Politics & Policy

Crisis Made Locally

California famously competes with Illinois for the title of the most fiscally dysfunctional state. While residents of most states are enduring only their second or third year of fiscal crisis, ...
Politics & Policy

Wringing Bell

Bell, Calif. — When you come off the 710 and onto the Florence Avenue ramp, there is on this particularly smoggy August day a dirt-encrusted drifter, standing in a litter-strewn, ...
Politics & Policy

The Wrong Alternative

Anglosphere advocates of the alternative-vote system — in which citizens cast votes for both their first- and second-preference candidates, and losing candidates’ votes are redistributed to their voters’ second preferences ...


Politics & Policy

Comes a Horseman

Franklin Roosevelt’s clash with the Supreme Court is one of history’s greatest legal dramas, but it has generated an unfair and misleading mythology. In this legend, the Court greeted the ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

1648 and All That

What should you look for in a top-level diplomat? Brains? Yes. Discretion? Assuredly. An equable temper, or at least façade? Without doubt. (Surtout, said Talleyrand, who knew something about the ...
The Straggler

Labor Pains

August lived up to its reputation as the Silly Season this year, the news dominated for several days by JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater, who quit his job August 9 ...


Politics & Policy


Are Cops Overpaid? The quality of National Review is of the highest order, but Daniel Foster’s “Cops, and Robbers” (August 30) left something to be desired. Mr. Foster begins with the sad ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ There is no God but Allah, and Imam Rauf is his slumlord. ‐ In the Obama era, “end” is the new victory. President Obama declared the end of combat operations ...
The Long View

A Dip into the Archives . . .

From the Associated Press, Aug. 28, 2010: Beck: Help Us Restore Traditional American Values Conservative commentator Glenn Beck and tea party champion Sarah Palin appealed Saturday to a vast, predominantly white crowd ...
Politics & Policy


AT GROUND ZERO There are no words to mitigate or mourn As pale with dust like walkers on the moon Ghostly rescuers probe thru human ruins, Lifting their eyelids scorched dry of ...

The Color of No Money

In the previous depression, the government employed serious writers at the WPA to keep them from doing something rash, like writing popular books people might actually enjoy. Many were sent ...

Most Popular

White House

The Impeachment Clock

Adam Schiff’s impeachment inquiry is incoherent. Given the impossibility of a senatorial conviction, the only strategy is to taint the president with the brand of impeachment and weaken him in the 2020 election. Yet Schiff seems to have no sense that the worm has already turned. Far from tormenting Trump and ... Read More
Economy & Business

Who Owns FedEx?

You may have seen (or heard on a podcast) that Fred Smith so vehemently objects to the New York Times report contending that FedEx paid nothing in federal taxes that he's challenged New York Times publisher A. G. Sulzberger to a public debate and pointed out that "the New York Times paid zero federal income tax ... Read More

The ‘Welfare Magnet’ for Immigrants

That term refers to a controversial concept -- and a salient one, given the Trump administration's efforts to make it harder for immigrants to use welfare in the U.S. A new study finds that there's something to it: Immigrants were more likely to come to Denmark when they could get more welfare there. From the ... Read More