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Work is more than just a job – it structures our lives, gives us an identity, and defines our place in society. In the modern world, our lives are organized around working, to a degree that some see as unhealthy.

This page includes some of the most important books on the topic of working. The links go to Amazon and a percent of any purchase price will be donated to labor organizations.

Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, by Barbara Ehrenreich. (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001)

When Barbara Ehrenreich wrote Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America in 1998, the federal minimum wage was $5.15. To prove that millions of full-time workers received poverty-level wages, Ehrenreich herself worked as a waitress, a maid, and a cleaning woman, among other minimum wage jobs. Nickel and Dimed showed that a single minimum wage job is simply not enough to live on, and that so-called “unskilled” labor requires enormous effort. Today, the federal minimum wage is $7.25, lower even than the 1998 wages Ehrenreich earned when accounting for inflation. The problem identified by Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed has not improved––it’s only gotten worse.

The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure, by Juliet Schor (New York: Basic Books, 1992)

In 1992, Harvard economist Juliet Schor asked why Americans are working than any time since World War II. In spite of new technologies that promise to save time, Americans spend more time working and have less leisure time than any other industrialized Western nation. And the trend is only getting worse––Schor shows that every year our average days working increases by a full day, leaving Americans in the 1990s with only 16 hours of leisure time after work and chores. The problem, according to Schor, is that Americans repeatedly choose money over time in part because of an unhealthy work-spend cycle that drives Americans to buy bigger houses, newer cars, and the latest technology.

Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Terkel (New York: New Press, 1974)

Pulitzer Prize-winning oral historian Studs Terkel interviewed over one hundred workers to understand how they felt about their work. His collection includes a nurse, a gravedigger, a fireman, a farmer, and many more, providing a snapshot of the working world of the early 1970s. As Terkel concludes, workers are looking “for daily meaning as well as daily bread.” The voices Terkel captures are loud and clear in this timeless work, which chronicles the final years of the old economy before the rise of computers and the internet transformed the modern workforce.

For the podcast series based on Terkel’s interviews, see the Podcasts collection.

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