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On “Working” and Being Out of Touch

Perhaps surprisingly, this post has nothing to do with the recent spat between President Obama and Mitt Romney in regards to which of them is more out of touch. And it has nothing to do with the recent dust-up between a Democratic strategist and Ann Romney about women in the work place or being “just a housewife.”  It has to do with a musical I saw at the Keegan Theater in D.C. this weekend called “Working,” and how it made me feel.  “Working” is based on a book of the same title by Studs Terkel in which the author roamed the country talking to working people about their jobs and how they felt about their jobs.  It’s updated every now and then to paint a more current picture of the American worker from all walks of life in all types of jobs.

Now, I have worked a variety of jobs. I’ve worked in several offices as a temp; I’ve worked in the kitchen for an office building’s cafeteria; I’ve waited tables; I briefly drove the Meow Mix Mobile; I sold knives; I sold gym memberships; I enlisted in the Army; I’ve been unemployed.  I have had a prolonged negative account balance; I’ve budgeted such that I had $0.47 of wiggle room in consecutive months; and I’ve experienced having a comfortable balance in my checking, savings and retirement accounts.  I felt that I had experienced a good portion of the country, having grown up in Annapolis, Maryland and lived as an adult in Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; Athens, GA; and Fayetteville, NC.

Despite all of that, “Working” was a wake-up call. I looked past the fact that music and dancing had been added to the stories that were being told and realized that this wasn’t just a script. This wasn’t “based” on the truth. These stories were people’s lives. A common theme throughout the various career paths or jobs was the feeling that there really wasn’t much of a choice.  This theme shows itself during a musical number that aptly repeats that “for now, I do what no one else is willing to do.” Whether it be an unfortunate life circumstance that derailed their dreams or whether it stemmed from a lack of dreams in the first place, workers outlined the lives they lived that led them to the jobs they chose–or, as it seems, didn’t choose. The jobs that seemed to choose them.

Some of the jobs covered are mill workers, brick-layers, customer support, food service, firemen, teachers and stay-at-home mothers, among others. Throughout, the workers show a sense of pride in what they do, despite often being overlooked or looked-down upon. One song speaks to the ability to point to a building or a road or a house and to say “I helped build that,” no matter the size of the contribution. These workers are right to take pride in what they do. They should not be ashamed or let people look down upon them. They are the backbone of our economy and our society. However, despite that sense of pride, there was an underlying sense of frustration, of limited options, of a low ceiling… of misery.

The whole thing made something occur to me: no matter how much I try to expose myself to various situations and how badly I try to expand my horizons, I can never walk in everyone’s shoes. What’s more, is that I will never be able to comprehend what it means to grow up with some combination of predetermination and hopelessness about my future. But most striking to me was the realization that the country and the economy actually needs and relies on people feeling such things.  We all actually NEED people to decide that they have no better option than to do some difficult job that is powered to some extent on the misery of the employees. We are all better off because so many Americans were too hopeless or too downtrodden or too indoctrinated or maybe just too practical to hope for any more from their lives.

When Rick Santorum grossly mischaracterized President Obama’s remarks about college and called him a snob (the two men actually have remarkably similar statements on the topic), I got to thinking about how insane it is to have such a negative impression of college education. When I read around the same time that college educated Americans had reached a record high at 30.4%, I was struck by how low that number sounded.  However, these thoughts come from an east coast point of view having grown up with probably 20 institutions of higher education within a 50-mile radius of my house, with two college-educated parents, and with a wealth of professional career choices abounding within my sight. For much of the country, however, these things may never present themselves as an option, or a path toward those options may be too elusive. This isn’t an excuse for anti-intellectualism, which I still find astoundingly destructive to our society. But it does paint some context behind the words and choices of so many Americans which I previously had failed to fully consider.

I’ve never felt so out of touch with America in my life as I did watching “Working.” And if anything can prove that to be true, it is the fact that I think that I gained a clearer understanding of the American worker by watching a musical in Washington, D.C. Talk about out of touch.

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  1. October 3, 2013 at 1:10 am

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