The everyday world of work: From the passionate to the absurd

Debra King, Flinders University

Michaela McGuire Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2009 (208 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-589-0 (paperback) RRP $27.99.

Jana Wendt Nice Work, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 2010 (240 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-620-0 (paperback) RRP $34.99.

We are often characterised by the work we do. When introduced to someone, we are asked about our work. In the media, personal descriptors—such as those describing Masterchef contestants: ‘Claire, Lawyer, 31, Vic’—usually include occupation. Identifying the work we do provides a shorthand account of our education, skill, and socio-economic status. For most of us, however, this method of ‘summing up’ a person is based on very little knowledge of an occupation beyond, perhaps, stereotypes, media exposure and indirect contact as a consumer or client. What people actually do all day in their work is often a mystery.

Michaela McGuire’s Apply Within: Stories of Career Sabotage and Jana Wendt’s Nice Work expose us to the everyday world of other people’s work. Wendt achieves this by interviewing people in nine different types of work and observing their working lives. Hers is a serious exploration of the performance of work by people who are deeply invested in what they do. The people she observes are engaged in meaningful (but not always paid) work through which they have constructed careers, vocations and identities: by and large the title ‘nice work’ fits. The accounts of work differ in length, content and focus. Some stories are based on the views of one person (weather observer, CEO, foley artist, acrobat); some on a small group of people (forensic anthropologist, volunteers); while others take account of the views of people she meets along the way (priest, boxer, sculptor). Some are the result of an engagement over several months, others over a few days. The effect is that in some of the stories you get a glimpse of what a person does in their work; while in others you get to know what they think about their work and how they experience it. Despite differences between the chapters, the book is held together by Wendt’s engaging curiosity and her journalistic skills which bring the different types of work alive and provide insights into not just what people do, but what is important to them about it.

In contrast, McGuire romps through a descriptive and often humorous account of seven jobs she has worked in: workplaces as diverse as a casino, video shop, campaign office and strip club. Her stories of work highlight not so much the passion, but the absurdity of much that goes on in the workplace. The book started out as a blog and its roots are evident in its immediate and lively writing. Choosing humour as the hook that brings the reader through the anecdotes and experiences of work, McGuire’s autobiographical style reflects a youthful, almost playful, engagement with work. An aspiring journalist, she writes about her experience of jobs undertaken during the transition between school and ‘career’. As such, McGuire’s jobs are more transitory than those Wendt describes, so Apply Within provides a very different perspective on the everyday world of work.

These two books help to fill a gap in our knowledge about contemporary work.

Refreshingly, these two books provide insightful accounts of the culture of work: we actually get to see work from the point of view of workers. With so much of the sociological, economic and policy research about work being presented at the macrosocial level, this is a welcome reprieve. We see work not as a form of activity bounded by skills, education, human capital and productivity—those characteristics able to be captured by hard, quantifiable data through surveys, experiments and structural analyses—but as a lived experience. Wendt and McGuire share (somewhat loosely) a history with ethnographic studies of work in which researchers worked in particular jobs as a means of gathering data (for example, Wynhausen 2005; Ehrenreich 2001; Allison 1994). Unfortunately, the tightening of university and research budgets, stricter gatekeeping by businesses, and a policy emphasis on structural, management and macrosocial issues have made it increasingly difficult to do quality ethnographic research of this kind (Smith 2001). In focusing on the experience and culture of work, these two books help to fill a gap in our knowledge about contemporary work (Fuchs Epstein 1990). They illustrate what it is like to do particular kinds of work; how work fits in with life, both in relation to the management of time, and in the realisation of passions and values; what it is about work that is enjoyable or boring; how people manage to maximise their pleasure and/or minimise their dissatisfaction with work; and whether or not their identification with work affects their work ethic.

Nice Work and Apply Within are quite different, in style and in what they seek to ‘say’ about work—and they describe sharply contrasting experiences and work cultures. One key difference is people’s approaches to work. All of Wendt’s participants were passionate about their work—or at least aspects of it—with most viewing their work as ‘a critical defining endeavour’ (p. x). Their work might be a major part of who they are and how they define themselves, but how they find meaning in it differs. People such as the foley artist and weather observer found meaning in doing their work tasks to the best of their ability and in producing a good outcome: for the foley artist this meant achieving the ‘precise sound’ for a movie audience; for the weather observer it meant the capacity for alertness, and accurately reading weather instruments to keep people safe and services functioning. Work enabled the CEO, the forensic anthropologist, the volunteers and the priest to realise their passions. In addition to finding something meaningful in what they did in their formal work, these people used their work to meet social goals. The CEO mentored young women and was the director of an Indigenous enterprise partnership; the forensic anthropologist sought social justice through identifying the bones of massacred youth in East Timor; the volunteers drew on their experiences of the Holocaust to educate young people; the priest used his position and contacts to provide scholarships and opportunities for young people to develop their musical and artistic talents. For the boxer, the acrobat and the sculptor work enabled them to express their identity and achieve personal goals, even when this involved teaching or entertaining others.

Wendt’s accounts of ‘nice work’ stand in stark contrast to McGuire’s experiences.

The desire to do meaningful work shaped how working and personal lives were constructed. One way it did this was by further complicating the work-life nexus. The CEO had made an explicit arrangement with her partner that he would be the primary carer for their child and take responsibility for the organisation of ‘home’. And although not as explicitly stated, the capacity for the forensic pathologist to work overseas for extended periods of time must have involved similar negotiations. The boxer continued to box even though he was aware that his wife was not entirely comfortable with him doing so, and eventually left him because of it. The sculptor, into his 90s at the time of writing, depended heavily on the physical and emotional support of his wife to maintain his capacity to work; this included her participation in his artistic practice. Engaging in meaningful work was a commitment undertaken by the family as well as the worker.

Having meaningful work does not necessarily equate to being successful, particularly by ‘objective’ standards. Wendt found that sometimes people were constrained in their careers by their commitment to something meaningful in their work. Both the sculptor and the priest were viewed as non-conformist within their professions. The priest was viewed as pushy and self-centred by those in charge of his destiny and subsequently demoted and sidelined from positions he sought within the church. The sculptor defied the norms of his profession to pursue his art, only to be denied the awards and accolades that come to artists of his standing. Both men were ambitious and driven to succeed in their chosen vocations, but neither was willing to compromise their values to achieve success, nor to consider changing careers. Their passion shaped how they constructed their work, but this had implications for how their work was managed or directed by others.

Wendt’s accounts of ‘nice work’ stand in stark contrast to McGuire’s experiences. Not only did she not find meaning in her work, she struggled to find work in which she could do something even remotely useful. In some ways McGuire epitomises the caricatured ‘Gen Y’ worker: high mobility between jobs, lack of loyalty to employers, and lack of respect for authority. In other ways her dogged determination to find work (and to find some kind of ‘decent’, perhaps even meaningful, work in which she could actually use her skills) and her keen sense of loyalty to those colleagues she does connect with present us with the flip side of work through Gen Y eyes (McQueen 2008). Her writing captures a lot of the ridiculousness of work from a Gen Y perspective, using humour to gloss over some of the awfulness of being treated so badly by so many managers and supervisors.

Workers who are treated badly have little option to either put up with it or leave.

It is tempting to see McGuire’s experiences simply as symptomatic of her youth and the transitory nature of the work, but her experiences reflect those of many young people today in entry level jobs. McGuire’s stories show that, rather than being merely a product of her generation, her approach to work has been influenced by the experience of workplace socialisation: an experience she is likely to share with many of her peers. It is now customary for the pathway from school to (‘real’) work to involve employment in a range of jobs similar to those McGuire has had—in retail, hospitality, entertainment, sales, and even office work. For many people of her generation, the pathway is long; it can last six years or more depending on when they first start work and whether they work while attending university. This means they are likely to be exposed to a greater number of different kinds of casual, temporary, precarious, meaningless, and self-demeaning work than people in previous generations.

Despite the poor quality of her jobs, McGuire is not a passive recipient of the thoughtlessness, disrespect and incompetence of her employers. Interestingly, she even manages to find some enjoyment in her work. This is usually through the relationships she develops with co-workers and the various resistance strategies she deploys. Although understandable and worthwhile on a personal level, this individualised level of coping and resistance will not bring about systemic change. For that, collective action is required. In a time of declining union membership, patchy coverage of unions and their limited power in negotiating workplace change, who is there for workers to turn to? Reliance on governments to protect workers has proven dangerous: policies such as WorkChoices made workers in precarious forms of work even more powerless. Human resource managers are compromised in their capacity to be ‘champions’ for workers because their ultimate allegiance lies with the employing organisation and its business strategy (Caldwell 2001). Workers who are treated badly have little option to either put up with it (making it somehow bearable) or leave.

It is tempting to view work as an individual pursuit.

This is more than a ‘Gen Y’ story. It is not only young people moving from school to ‘real’ work who are subjected to these kinds of appalling employment practices. What of the workers for whom this is ‘real’ work? In Working, written in 1972, Studs Terkel noticed that people have an ability to find something ‘meaningful in the meaningless’ because they thought that this was their ‘lot’ in life and it was therefore to their benefit to find something they enjoyed or could be proud about in their work (1972, p. xii). Even then, however, he noted a perception that the younger generation was unwilling to accept this compromise. Fast forward nearly 40 years, through a period of rapid expansion of tertiary education, higher standards of living and greater individualism, it is little wonder that younger generations are unwilling to accept that this kind of work is all there is to life. At the same time these early experiences of work are socialising them into an approach to work—a work ethic—based on a lack of respect and appreciation, and where seeking meaning is illusory. It is little wonder that the survival strategies they develop doing poor quality jobs present challenges for managers offering ‘real’ work (Tulgan 2009).

It is tempting to view work as an individual pursuit, in which we make choices about education, salary, values, relationships and what we want to achieve. Nice Work and Apply Within are both written from an individualistic perspective. As a sociologist, one of the tasks is to seek the political in the personal: the social in the individual. By placing Wendt and McGuire’s accounts of the everyday world of work into the broader context of the culture of work we get insights into the social relations of work, both within the work itself and in the products of work. Having meaningful work might be important for the individual, but it relies on the invisible support of families, mentors and communities. Coping with appalling conditions at work through the use of humour, developing friendships with co-workers or using resistance tactics might make work bearable for an individual, but it will not change work conditions. To truly understand work, we need to see it as both a social and an individual activity. We need to more fully appreciate the work that people do and enable them to do it with dignity. This requires understanding and valuing the place of families, communities, worker organisations and governments—as well as workers—in the everyday world of work.


Allison, A. 1994, Nightwork: Sexuality, Pleasure and Corporate Masculinity in a Tokyo Hostess Club, Chicago University Press, Chicago.

Caldwell, R. 2001, ‘Champions, adaptors, consultants and synergists: The new change agents in HRM’, Human Resource Management Journal, vol. 11, no. 3, pp. 39–52.

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

Fuchs Epstein, C. 1990, ‘The cultural perspective and the study of work’, in The Nature of Work: Sociological Perspectives, eds K. Erikson and S.P. Vallas, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 88–98.

McQueen, M. 2008, The ‘New Rules of Engagement’: A Guide to Understanding and Connecting with Generation Y, Nexgen Impact, Sydney.

Smith, V. 2001, ‘Ethnographies of work and the work of ethnographers’, in Handbook on Ethnography, eds P. Atkinson, A. Coffey, S. Delamont, L. Lofland, J. Lofland, Sage, London and Thousand Oaks, pp. 220–233.

Terkel, S. 1972, Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, Pantheon Books, New York.

Tulgan, B. 2009, Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage Gen Y, John Wiley and Sons, New York.

Wynhausen, E. 2005, Dirt Cheap: Life at the Wrong End of the Labour Market, Pan Macmillan, Sydney.

Debra King is a sociologist at the National Institute of Labour Studies, Flinders University. She has a long-standing interest in examining the meaning and experience of work, focusing on the emotional dimensions of work. Her research has been conducted in a variety of contexts including aged care, child care, health care, social movements and management.

View other articles by Debra King: