Labor Day was officially recognized as a federal holiday in 1894, after the Pullman railroad workers’ strike. President Grover Cleveland enacted the holiday into law as a gesture of reconciliation with the labor movement.
Critics always complain that movies, television, and books ignore the workplace, e.g., The cast of Friends, living in an incredibly opulent Greenwich Village apartment, seemed to live lives of total leisure, lying around on the couch or hanging out at the Central Perk for hours on end.
Here’s some of my favorite media which involves people actually working:
E.R. (TV), NBC, (1994-2009)- Watching the first season of this show always makes me want to be a doctor. I imagine it might be the same for lots of other people, including the rich and famous. If in the future I choose to re-watch the first season at the age of seventy, I will probably bitterly regret not being a doctor, for at least a few minutes.
The Office (TV) – UK Version, BBC (2001) – The American Office is one of my favorite sitcoms ever, but the UK series, which ran for twelve episodes total, beats our version in at least one respect: it captures the hard reality of modern working lives in a corporate world—impersonal, bleak, and largely meaningless.
The Grapes of Wrath (novel), 1939, by John Steinbeck – The story has more to do with the lack of work than actually working, but Steinbeck captures the quandary of the twentieth-century’s economic crisis in heartbreaking fashion: the pervasiveness of senseless, unending suffering borne under a self-perpetuating, blind system which no understands and no one can control.
Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do (book), 1974, by Studs Terkel – The concept is simple, but ingenious: Terkel went around the country asking hundreds of different people in every profession he could imagine, from dairy farmer to movie critic, what they did at their jobs, and what they felt about it. The results go off in many different directions—some predictable, some quite unexpected. This book was written at a time when the effects of globalization and digital technology were just starting to be felt in the workplace. A modern version would be awesome. Today, when someone tells me what they do for a living, I usually don’t understand at all.
Mad Men (TV), AMC, 2007-present – Many television shows have been made about the specialized professions—doctors, lawyers, cops, etc. I can’t think of one besides Mad Men that deals with the business of actual business at such a basic level. There’s lots of stuff going on in the show—quirky history lessons, sexual politics, personal struggles. The show approaches those topics with varying degrees of success. But the one consistent thing is the parade of clients, their accounts, and the products they sell to the American public. This is what most of us end up doing to make a living, in the final summation—selling stuff, or helping to sell it.
Martin Eden (novel), 1909, by Jack London – This is a must-read for anyone who’s ever had a passing thought that they could make a living as an artist. The protagonist begins the story as a young sailor, and eventually decides he will be a writer. He gets mostly agony and heartbreak as a result. The novel is supposedly highly autobiographical.
The Fountainhead (novel), 1943, by Ayn Rand – Rand has a very specific philosophical purpose for her novel, but in writing it for that purpose she also exposes some brutal truths about how we are judged and rewarded professionally. A system which claims to reward the best and the brightest, in Rand’s mind, actually does all it can to destroy them. A society steeped in self-illusion seeks to protect that illusion by promoting the mediocre, conniving, and socially acceptable over the truly gifted. Rand makes a convincing case for what ails us, as most revolutionary philosophers do—Marx was pretty much spot-on about the weaknesses of capitalism—but, just like Marx, most of us in the modern world find her prescriptions lacking.
Mannequin (film), 1989 – This is one of those ‘80s movies where the main character loses their job in the first five minutes, establishes that they are a loser, and then something fantastic happens to change their lives. In this case, the fantastic thing is a 3000-year old Egyptian princess being reincarnated as a mannequin (Kim Cattrall), after the protagonist (Andrew McCarthy) lucks into an entry-level job designing storefront windows in a Manhattan mall. When it comes to ‘feel-good’ movies, there’s nothing quite as feel-good as watching a poor schlub get their foot in the door, and figure out a way to climb the ladder within the span of an hour and forty-five minutes. Other examples would be The Secret to My Success (1987), Stripes (1981), and Working Girl (1988). Somewhat related are role-reversal movies, where someone rich ends up pulling a switch into the working class, or getting a switch pulled on them– Coming to America (1988), where Eddy Murphy convinced me he could be perfectly happy as a wealthy African prince pretending to clean bathrooms in a fake McDonald’s in Queens, and Trading Places (1983). Shameless fantasies all, but they make you feel pretty good.