Relationship Between Social Class and Work in American Culture and or Literature Term Paper

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Social Class and Work in American Culture: Analysis of America's workers and Work Lives in "Working" by Studs Terkel

America as one of the bastions of capitalism and modernism in the world has created within its society a complex structure of labor force. Ultimately, work has become a part of American culture's nature, structuring social class based on an individual's function and contribution to society, and defining individuals based on their capability to contribute, economically, to their society.

In Stud Terkel's book, "Working," the lives of American workers are effectively mirrored through Terkel's interviews of their lives as workers, the work that they do, and their work's repercussions in their personal lives. Embedded within each interview/vignette is a reflection of the lives that American workers live, demonstrating how the working class leads disenfranchised lives, and come up with ways through which they can alleviate the impact of being disenfranchised or marginalized in the very society with whom they contribute and work for.

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In this paper, the discussion and analysis presented in the next three sections centers on two important themes that emerged from the interviews, which are relevant to the discussion of social class and work in American culture. The first discussion delves into the participation of women in the labor force, wherein disenfranchisement within the women sector is not only based on their membership to the lower socio-economic class of the society, but based on prejudice against their gender as well. The second discussion, meanwhile, focuses on the workers' group in general, positing that the working class tries to alleviate its sense of disenfranchisement by "making sense" or giving intrinsic value to their work. That is, they find ways in which they give invaluable meaning to their work by equating their work as a "contribution" to their society.

Term Paper on Relationship Between Social Class and Work in American Culture and or Literature Assignment

The third and last section of this paper integrates the themes discussed in the preceding sections, discussing in general the nature of labor force in America, and how the working class is also a reflection of the workers' rapidly lowering moral regard about their work and the increasing divergence to pursue a life that may not be economically rewarding, but is qualitatively fulfilling.

Women in the Labor Force

Among the most poignant interviews that Terkel conducted was that of a waitress, which covered all issues relevant to women workers in general. In the waitress's interview, there exists not only socio-economic stratification, but gender stratification as well. Implicit in the interview was the existence of a dominantly-male society who has the economic resources and political power to subjugate, even undermine, workers, most specifically women workers. The following passage from her interview contains the dynamics of power play between male customers and the female waitress:

became a waitress because I needed money fast, and you don't get it in an office. My husband and I broke up and he left me with debts and three children. My baby was six months. The fast buck, your tips. The first ten-dollar bill that I got as a tip, a Viking guy gave to me. He was a very robust, terrific atheist. Made very good conversation for us, 'cause I am too.

"Tips? I feel like Carmen. it's like a gypsy holding out a tambourine and they throw the coin. [Laughs] There might be occasions when the customers might intend to make it demeaning -- the man about town, the conventioneer. When the time comes to pay the check, he would do little things, 'How much should I give you?' He might make an issue about it. I did say to one, 'Don't play God with me. Do what you want.' I would spit it out, my resentment -- that he dares make me feel I'm operating only for a tip.

These passages demonstrate strength within the interviewee, who has learned to realize her self-worth as a an individual, despite the fact that her work constantly exposes her to the reality that constantly reminds her that she is just a service worker, and a female service worker at that.

The first passage exposes one reality that most female workers face at present: the lack of economic or financial source, which are mostly applicable to single parents. Evidently, economic reasons prevail over quality of work or morale that the individual receives at work. As in the interviewee's case, her need to find a "fast buck" became a priority, which compelled her to accept and retain her status as a waitress, rather than employing herself as a white collar worker "in an office." This important insight in the interview also brings into fore the lack of support women receive from their society. This reflects America's attitude towards women workers, wherein they are left to rely on themselves, allowing the 'wheels of capitalism' determine their "fate" -- that is, their eventual stature and function in the society. Definitely, the lack of choice on the part of the female worker and the lack of support given her combine to determine her low socio-economic status and marginalization as a female worker in a world of "male bosses."

The second passage, meanwhile, delves into the persistence of discrimination often projected towards female workers. Note that the interviewee is disenfranchised in two ways: she is dependent on her work in order to maintain a steady income, making her susceptible to harassment as a female worker in the service industry. Customer tips in the interviewee's case have become "gauges" through which customers determine her performance as an employee of the establishment she works for. However, these tips also become a tool through which customers can assume power and control over the waitress, as illustrated in her experience of a customer who power played her into asking 'how much he should give' the waitress for her service.

It is fortunate that the interviewee has realized her self-worth as an individual, considering herself more than just a waitress, or simply, what she does for a living. Because she has full awareness of her worth as an individual, she is able to cope effectively and deflect any power plays that come her way, as she goes through her work, establishing customer-waitress relationships. However, her case is not the norm for all female workers in the country today. In a capitalist society wherein the service industry is booming, female workers become the "frontliners" in offering customers and clients services, amid the rampant socio-economic and gender prejudice and discrimination.

Indeed, Houseman and Osawa's (2003) analysis of female workers in the country's labor force show that women remain disenfranchised as a workforce sector because most of the women are still relegated to part-time and temporary types of employment (2). However, this feature of the workforce in capitalist societies is not only based on economy alone. As Osawa pointed out, the existence and prevalence of non-standard employment status among women is partly attributed to the female worker's choice of employment arrangement. The increase in part-time employment, according to the analysis, is due to women "desiring part-time employment, owing to the precipitous decline of family and self-employment opportunities" (7).

Apart from balancing work and family, another precursor determined to be a driving force for the prevalence of temporary employment among women is the changing nature of the workforce today. At present, "workforce flexibility" is a current trend among companies, wherein workers are given flexible work hours, which oftentimes mean "irregular work hours," a common practice among workers in the service industry (9). Thus, with the desire to have more hours to spend with their respective families and more period of adjustment between work and family (or personal) times, women workers become the prime components of the service industry, subjecting them to greater exposure to customer-employee relations, which oftentimes involve power plays. Power plays become especially crucial when female workers become the subject, and male customers or clients, the "power-holder" or the privileged individual who is able to put the female worker in an undermining or subjugated role.

Producing Something: Workers Making Sense of their Work Lives

Workers in general experience the same feeling of disenfranchisement, primarily because they feel that they have not optimized their skills, talent, and knowledge. In a capitalist society where work is naturally limiting and highly-segmented, it is not surprising that workers feel this way. The division of labor prevalent in capitalist America transforms humans into machines, wherein each skill, effort, or energy expended is quantified and translated economically into a specific monetary equivalent through wages.

In a society where everything is quantified, workers seek alternative avenues through which the level of disenfranchisement -- whether this is in terms of salary/wages, job level or position at work, or kind of work done -- is alleviated. The concept of "producing something" emerged as the prevalent theme throughout Terkel's interviews of workers in America. "Producing something" is equivalent to workers' making sense or purpose of what they do for a living, which people actually spend most of their lives with.

To consider themselves not as disenfranchised as they are, workers… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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Relationship Between Social Class and Work in American Culture and or Literature.  (2006, October 26).  Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

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