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Barack Obama’s Working Is a Timely Reality Check on the American Dream—Until It Gets to the Bosses

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In 1974, the author and broadcaster Studs Terkel published a best-selling doorstopper with an equally unwieldy title. Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, an instant classic of labor studies, collects the oral histories of more than 100 workers at all levels of industries that range from farming, manufacturing, and health care to the arts and professional sports. While the interviews are lively, Terkel sensed what he describes as “more than a slight ache” in the way subjects spoke about their experiences on the job. “Ought not there be an increment, earned though not yet received, from one’s daily work—an acknowledgement of man’s being?” he asked in the introduction.

An admirer of Terkel’s book since college, Barack Obama set out to update the project with Working: What We Do All Day, a 4-part documentary that arrives on Netflix May 17. Each episode profiles three workers at the same level of the contemporary workforce, scaling the pyramid of wealth and power from service jobs to middle-class office work to “dream jobs” before reaching the bosses. Obama, an executive producer as well as the show’s narrator and a sporadic presence on screen, frames these stories within the context of an American economy that has undergone drastic changes since Terkel’s time. It’s all pretty illuminating—until the bizarre finale, whose sunny portrait of the C-suite comes off as anything but representative.

The premiere, “Service Jobs,” is reminiscent of a more recent labor classic: the late author and activist Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Published in 2001, the book chronicles Ehrenreich’s grueling experiences working undercover as a diner waitress, a house cleaner, and at Walmart—jobs that test her patience and punish her body but do not pay her bills. Working’s subjects represent the service sector a generation later: a newly hired home health aide for At Home Care Mississippi, a longtime housekeeper at the Pierre hotel in Manhattan, and an Uber Eats driver with a list of side hustles and dreams of making it as a makeup artist. It probably isn’t a coincidence that they are all women of color and mothers.

Echoing Ehrenreich, Obama notes that what these women do “are sometimes called ‘low-skill’ jobs. But only someone who’s never actually done the work would ever believe that.” That comes through as we watch Randi, who chose to become an aide instead of taking a higher-paid job at an auto factory because she wanted to do something meaningful, listen to and bond with an elderly patient. Then we learn that she had to quit because the demands of the job prove to be incompatible with the responsibilities of a single parent. As maddening as Randi’s predicament is, director Caroline Suh (Salt Fat Acid Heat) is careful not to frame all service jobs as interchangeable. Elba, the housekeeper, earns a living wage thanks to her union and enjoys spending time with co-workers in what looks to be a relatively positive workplace.

Elba Guzmán, right, with a co-worker, in Working: What We Do All Day

Obama’s narration situates the subjects of each episode within a broader economic and sociopolitical context. We learn about how FDR’s New Deal helped organized labor—and also how those reforms rarely extended to farm and domestic workers, a largely nonwhite cohort. In “The Middle,” which follows a switchboard operator at the Pierre, an At Home Care supervisor, an hourly employee at self-driving vehicle tech company Aurora Innovation, Obama chronicles the shrinking of the middle class. An experimental musician when he’s off the clock, Luke likes his job, but around the dinner table with his parents, the conversation turns to why he’s having a tougher time than they did achieving such American dream milestones as buying his first home. The knowledge workers in “Dream Jobs”—a robotics engineer at Aurora, a lobbyist for At Home Care, the Pierre’s general manager—talk about wanting to “find meaning” through their careers. “When you have it all,” Obama asks, “what responsibility do you have to other people?”

The people Working follows are observant and reflective; they articulate eloquent visions for bridging the gap between the jobs they have now and what would ultimately make them happy. Suh is wise to take us beyond their daily grinds and into their homes and the family lives that are shaped, for better or worse, by their work. And Obama is a more active participant in the series than you might expect. Equally at ease touring the Pierre and delivering lunch to starstruck office workers, listening to Luke improvise music in his basement and grocery shopping with Randi, he—like Terkel—gets subjects to talk candidly about their experiences. They are comfortable enough to pose candid questions of their own. “Are you at peace now?” Randi asks the former President. Yes, he says, but “I worry about the next generation.”

If only Obama and the rest of the team behind this project worried enough to be clearer about the causes—and particularly the culprits—of the inequality Working documents. “As a society, we do get to decide what life looks like for working people,” he says in the premiere. But who is “we”? The American voter, maybe, to a certain extent. More often, those decisions, to offer a mere $9 an hour for backbreaking physical labor or to pay what are for all intents and purposes full-time employees as contractors, get made at the very top of the corporate hierarchy. So you’d think an episode titled “The Boss” would involve some form of accountability.

President Barack Obama, left, and President Barack Obama and Natarajan Chandrasekaran in Working: What We Do All DayNetflix

Instead, the series finale follows three pretty atypical bigwigs. Natarajan Chandrasekaran, known as Chandra, is the affable chairman of Tata Group Mumbai, the India-based multinational conglomerate that owns the Pierre; Tata emphasizes philanthropy and has a reputation as an ethical corporation. Aurora’s co-founder and CEO, Chris Urmson, is the dynamic visionary leading his company through an IPO. Jeanette Felton, the deeply committed founder and CEO of At Home Care Mississippi, has been struggling with cuts in Medicaid payments. She prioritizes key employees’ salaries over her own, which she says is well under six figures. While the service workers are all open about their finances—and Obama mentions that CEO pay has skyrocketed in recent decades—neither of the other leaders talk about their salaries or wealth.

Nor do many of the problems their employees raise seem to filter up into these interviews. The closest “The Boss” comes to holding its subjects’ feet to the fire is a scene in which Urmson explains what Aurora’s self-driving trucks will mean for human truck drivers. “My expectation is that if you are a truck driver and you would like to drive a truck until you retire, then you will be able to do that, because we just have so much of a need for them,” he says. “But do I think you should probably go and start becoming a truck driver today? Maybe not.” If anyone posed a follow-up question about what happens to the people who would have taken those jobs under different circumstances, it didn’t make it into the episode. Mostly, these atypical executives are treated like heroes and thought leaders. And aside from touring facilities, running meetings, and making public appearances, what they actually do all day remains opaque.

Some of this sugarcoating probably comes with the territory, especially considering that almost all of the subjects represent the same three companies. What CEO in their right mind would invite camera crews into their offices if they weren’t convinced they’d be portrayed in a flattering light? Perhaps it’s not a surprise, either, given the heavy-hitting team of executive producers that also includes Laurene Powell Jobs, that Working goes so easy on the bosses. At best, you could say the episode is a vision of what corporate leadership should look like in 2023, rather than a representative sample of how things really are. The tone is reminiscent of Democratic Party stump speeches that note the suffering of the poor, working, and middle classes but rarely get around to holding anyone responsible for creating these conditions or effecting change.

As the series is wrapping up, Chandra, who grew up on a farm and believes that “you are never so much better than anyone else,” asks Obama if he worries about the polarization of society. “It’s my biggest worry,” the President replies. “We’ve got some work to do, both in strengthening democratic institutions, but I also think the economic and cultural and social ecosystems need to be strengthened.” Insightful as always—but there’s that exasperating “we” again.

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