Review: A Warning to Heed and Hope to Build with Mark Larson’s Working in the 21st Century

One of the first questions a stranger usually asks to identify who you are is, what do you do? But our job is more than how we make money, it is how society places value on us, how we create community, and how we utilize the majority of our time. From the start of Mark Larson’s Working in the 21st Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation (Agate Publishing), a doula interviewed by Larson warns and advises her clients who are about to take on a very important new job, don’t lose sight of who you are outside of this singular role.

The new book is inspired by Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, Working, in which Terkel interviewed 133 Americans about what they do all day and how they feel about it. Larson took what kept him rereading Terkel’s work—the issues that resonated with readers, the points of view shared by people in the neighborhood rather than celebrities, millionaires, and executives, people who take pride in work often overlooked and more often underpaid—and considered how similar issues were affecting today’s workforce. Like Terkel, who interviewed Americans during a time of tumult, Larson gives readers current insight into why people continue to wake up and do it all over again, how they feel about their jobs, and if they are happy at the end of the day—or the end of an era.

Larson’s oral history is a portrait of America in a moment of transition. Many of the interviews occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, threats to democracy, and heightened racism and cruelty. Repeated throughout the book is the negation of this being our “new normal.” That to say it means we accept it. But Larson's interviewees didn’t want to see severe increases in forest fires, greater acts of violence, and dangerous administrations considered "normal." If we are supposed to pretend we're okay with the world burning, then shouldn’t the pay reflect that new normality? A wild land firefighter, facing blazes that rival anything previous generations had seen before and on a more frequent basis, gets paid less than a fast-food worker. Suicide rates are up, substance abuse is on the rise, the days get harder, and the times more tiring. But when you can’t imagine yourself being happy anywhere else or leaving anyone hanging on your team, what else is there to do but wake up and start again?

What surprised me the most about Larson’s interviews was that the biggest overarching theme throughout wasn’t the doom and gloom of our times. It was a wish and daily actions to use work to build camaraderie not only with coworkers but also with one's larger community.

If you watch the news, it is repeated nonstop that we have never been more divided. That has been the tale for years. But within Larson’s pages, people from all over the country, from differing political ideologies and upbringings, all echo that they want to build each other up, to prove we are still in this together. Larson speaks to a flight attendant with a heart of gold, who understands emotional outbursts like a therapist and would throw her life on the line for her passengers and crew. He talks to an executive chef trying to make sure everyone was better than the day before. And he interviews an assistant principal who knows he has more to offer and knows his community does as well. Each one echoes the same sentiment in voice and action: we are all in this together despite our differences. We all simply want to be happy.

Larson doesn't just speak with folks in professions a high school counselor would suggest to their charges. He interviews those who have gone their own way, in unexpected chosen fields that are nonetheless completely suited to their skills, despite society saying it wasn’t right. Even a choice that seems simple for a woman, is seen as outrageous for a man. Larson spoke to a stay-at-home parent whose family couldn’t see that he was the one suited for this job. He had the patience and skill set to aid in the daily upbringing of their son. A carpenter who learned the trade in shop, trade school, and from his father, knows his name won’t be put on the buildings he works on, and knows his choice of career is continually downplayed as shop programs are removed from schools. However, he knows his hands need to work this way. Even a broomsquire, a career path unknown to me until I read this book, saw the under-acknowledged broom and turned it into art. She knew her eyes could see the handles in the forest and that her work fit her skill. More than that, it made her happy.

Larson’s book is a hopeful warning, letting us see what we have done to each other and our planet, needlessly, and the cost we are paying, as a community and as individuals. No one can read the interview with the dairy farmer—who lost his farm, family, and a job that made him happy, due to the farming crisis and agricultural industrialization—and can still think happiness is uncomplicated. Yet, and with a stern warning, there is a glass-half-full outlook. Larson asks more than what do you do, he asks how it makes his subjects feel, how it shaped their world, and what it all means when it is over.

Working in the 21st Century: An Oral History of American Work in a Time of Social and Economic Transformation is available in most bookstores and through the Agate Publishing website.

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Caroline Huftalen

Caroline L. Huftalen received her MFA in writing from the Savannah College of Art and Design, making her running tab of degrees people find frivolous: 2. Her work can be found on Buskingattheseams.com, SurvivorsProject.org, Windy City Reviews, and other publications. She lives in Chicago and is working on her first novel.