Has America Ignored the Workplace for Too Long?

Sheila steps into a wood-paneled room and addresses a ring of home-care aides in navy blue scrubs. Soft light filters through the curtains as they begin with a prayer: “Father God, as we go through this meeting, open up our minds, open up our ears, so we can hear, so we can see. Amen.” The aides take turns introducing themselves and offering brief sketches of their jobs. Sheila is their manager. They are employed by At Home Care, LLC, a business in southeastern Mississippi, and they are speaking to a camera — to a documentary crew that is filming their meeting for a mini-series titled “Working: What We Do All Day.” Some describe the closeness they have with the people whose bedpans they change, whose medications they administer. One, Caroline, her pulled-back hair flecked with gray, says she probably knows the clients she takes care of better than their own children do. Then Sheila asks: “Y’all have any questions for me? Any comments for me?”

This innocent query opens a floodgate of discontent that takes both Sheila and the viewer by surprise. There are questions about time-keeping and payment-tracking systems. An aide named Amanda says a client had her drive 10 miles to pick up a pizza: “Is the GPS picking up all that?” No, Sheila says sympathetically, aides don’t get paid for extra driving. “It don’t seem right,” she concedes, “because you’re burning your gas.” None of this releases the pressure in the room; if anything, it just keeps building. “How are we supposed to live and survive?” one woman asks. “We have kids to take care of, homes to take care of.” Caroline notes that she has been with the company for almost three years without seeing a raise. Sheila stares downward, as though battening her emotional hatches.

The scene is documentary gold. It requires no commentary, no interviews. It is a simple, powerful illustration of an American workplace, boiling like a pot of tomato sauce, ready to spit hot rivulets of grievance at anyone who stirs it. We feel for the workers. We feel for Sheila, who seems caught in a crossfire, trying her best. We feel righteous anger at whoever might be to blame for all this dissatisfaction. But who, precisely, is that? This is one of many big questions that “Working” may not have anywhere near enough time to answer.

“Working” is a limited Netflix series hosted by Barack Obama and produced in part by Higher Ground, the production company he and Michelle Obama founded. In a voice-over, the former president tells us the production was inspired by Studs Terkel’s pathbreaking 1974 oral history, “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do,” a hefty book that relayed the thoughts and stories of a wide swath of Americans, placing their words democratically side by side. The show’s four episodes, made available last month, aim for something similar, spending time with workers at all levels of the three companies it focuses on — letting viewers viscerally compare, say, the lives of a Manhattan housekeeper and the C.E.O. of the conglomerate that owns the hotel where she works. Money was clearly spent on this program. The cameras are slick, the angles creative, the songs expensively licensed. This may well be the production’s chief value: It is shockingly rare to see the daily lives of working-class people represented on TV so plainly and honestly, let alone with such a budget.

In that context, watching Sheila’s meeting spiral out of control feels almost as subversive and revelatory as Terkel’s book. The problem arises when the show attempts to explain what, specifically, has gone wrong to make that eruption possible. Try as it might to stay close to the workers, the series can’t resist its periodic voice-overs, in which Obama delivers industrial-grade doses of information over spiffy archival footage of domestic workers or the movie “Wall Street” or the economist Milton Friedman. The scripts touch on all sorts of systemic forces, from the workers left out of the New Deal to the macroeconomics of the decline of the middle class.

The fact that the show needs to reach all the way back to the New Deal era underlines a key problem: America’s perception of its own workplaces may be astonishingly out of date, steeped in denial about just how profoundly things have changed. The series wants to hang around working people, as Terkel did, to understand their hopes and dreams and contradictions. But it also wants to put forward an argument about what’s happened to American workers that involves catching the viewer up on several decades of complex changes — all presented by a politician who, you can’t help noting, happened to be in charge of the country for a key stretch of the time being explored.

Did politicians participate in all that denial? This issue goes unaddressed, but the series does touch on the idea that popular media has long neglected the workplace. Television, Obama argues at one point, used to be full of representations of working and middle-class people and their jobs — say, in Norman Lear shows like “Good Times” or “All in the Family.” After the Reagan era, though, popular shows tended to follow upscale professionals, or to look more like “Friends” or “Seinfeld,” portraying people who lived comfortably despite being vaguely or fancifully employed. The nation’s jobs have shifted from industrial to service work, but even that seismic change — a work force now epitomized by nurses, waiters, retail clerks, delivery drivers — is rarely reflected in the stories we consume. Neither are developments like the erosion of job security, the rise of erratic scheduling, the invasive workplace surveillance — changes that marked Obama’s very own era in the White House.

“Obtuseness in ‘respectable’ quarters is not a new phenomenon,” Terkel writes in his book. He offers the example of Henry Mayhew, whose 19th-century reports on working people in London “astonished and horrified readers of The Morning Chronicle.” The writer Barbara Ehrenreich later cataloged the way journalists and scholars “discovered” poverty in the 1960s after the breathless enthusiasm of the postwar economy cooled. (“We seem to have suddenly awakened,” the critic Dwight Macdonald wrote in a New Yorker review of one book on the topic, “to the fact that mass poverty persists.”) It’s easy to sense something similar in the audience for a documentary like “Working” — a sudden, belated understanding of the indignities creeping up toward even the most insulated professionals, and a growing sense of the workplace as a site of urgent, high-stakes conflict.

In the final episode, Obama suggests his biggest worry is polarization, a fear of the problems that will arise if we cannot pay people enough for them to find dignity in their work. Terkel’s own animating concerns were more jarringly radical and succinct: He began his book with the admonition that since it was about work, it was, “by its very nature, about violence — to the spirit as well as to the body.” Obama is not quite there. His “Working” wants to show us what America’s jobs look like today, and to wake us to the possibility that we have spent too long underestimating their profound, dignity-robbing, politically consequential transformation. The series would need hours of explanatory montage to make up for all that lost time; if there’s anything it makes clear, it’s that the problem is far larger and more urgent than a few hours of television can aim to capture.

Opening illustration: Source photographs from Netflix

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