Emily Guendelsberger was senior staff writer at Philadelphia City Paper when the paper was sold to a competitor for scrap and everyone who worked for it was laid off. She took that opportunity to investigate first-hand the working conditions of the modern American blue-collar job: a picker in an Amazon distribution center in Indiana, a customer-support call center in North Carolina, and a McDonald's in downtown San Francisco. The result is this book, one of the most engrossing pieces of long-form journalism that I've ever read.
On the Clock opens with a pop quiz. What does the term "in the weeds" mean to you?
If, like me, you come from the white-collar world, you're probably familiar with what Guendelsberger calls the academic definition: lost in the details, bogged down in unimportant minutia. But in the food service world, it means something different: overwhelmed with more customers and demands than you can handle at a reasonable pace. Which definition comes first to mind may be an indication of whether you've worked in food service, and thus a class marker in the United States. It's the second definition, as Guendelsberger shows throughout this book, that characterizes the modern blue-collar job.
You can make a lot of money explaining away the gap between data and reality in ways that flatter puzzled wealthy people. But if you've had a service job in the past decade, I'll bet that some of the answers are probably as obvious to you as why millennials aren't buying yachts. I'll spend the next few hundred pages trying to make it just as obvious to all you readers, but the short answer? The bottom half of America's labor market lives in the weeds. All the time.
And the weeds are a terribly toxic place for human beings. The weeds make us crazy. The weeds make us sick. The weeds destroy family life. The weeds push people into addiction. The weeds will literally kill you. And people fortunate enough to have good jobs making policy or writing op-eds seem to have no idea how crippled a life with no escape from the weeds is.
This is the thesis that Guendelsberger develops over the course of three very different jobs. Two involve intense human interaction; one (the Amazon picker job) involves almost no human interaction at all. One is physically strenuous; another is a desk job. Only one of them is in food service. But the common point of all three is that they are timed with machine-driven ruthlessness, are obsessed with "time theft" by the employee (an entire sociological research project, and a political party, could be based on that phrase), and are scheduled so that the workers stay in the weeds essentially continuously during their shifts.
I did plenty of research beforehand, and I'd heard crazy things about how stressful each job would be — each in its own special way, like Tolstoy's unhappy families. But at each of them, technology made it impossible to escape the weeds. And every time, my thorough research totally failed to prepare me for how dehumanizing the job felt.
The focus of this book is detailed reporting of the experience of each job, starting with the initial training, and Guendelsberger's own reactions to that experience. But she also provides the reader with context and background, allowing the reader to generalize from the specific to the systemic and trace the origins of the system back in time. There is a lot in this book about the origins of scientific management and Taylorism. Even if you were already familiar with Frederick Winslow Taylor, as I was, you're likely to learn more about the history of work performance monitoring and quotas.
Even better, Guendelsberger interviews other workers in these jobs, tests her assumptions against their opinions, describes their lives, and reports the observations of those who love these jobs. This ability to both put forward her own opinion and also report the opinions of those who are able to thrive in this environment, without losing the overall context, is a sign of great investigative journalism. It also adds more memorable characters to the book: the woman with PTSD and anxiety who found work as an Amazon warehouse picker ideal for distracting her brain, the people who travel the country taking seasonal work and living in tents, the McDonald's worker who tells Guendelsberger to think of her family and walk away from any confrontation with a customer, and so many more.
The turnover in these jobs is almost unimaginable, so it's worth being aware, when reading these sections, that anyone who survives the first couple of weeks is in a tiny minority. These interviews are therefore biased towards people who cope with these jobs unusually well, which underscores the implications of how difficult most of Guendelsberger's coworkers still find them.
It's worth mentioning here that On the Clock includes a detailed ethics statement about how Guendelsberger did reporting for this book, what she surreptitiously recorded and what she didn't, why she made those choices, who she told she was a reporter (which includes all of her coworkers who appear in the book), and how she reconstructed conversations with her coworkers. This is the first time I've seen this type of ethics statement in long-form journalism of this type, and now I'm wondering why there isn't one in every book like this.
The highlight of this book is Guendelsberger's ability to give the reader a feeling for each job as a life: the funny moments, the difficulties, the horrors, the good and bad coworkers, the attempt to find somewhere to live, and the experience of fitting life around the job. One example I'll remember is that she was doing this research during the run-up to the 2016 election. She is a politically engaged person, a reporter who paid close attention to the news, but found that months went by during which she completely lost track of politics, current events, and the campaign. There just wasn't time or energy left to care about politics. There's a lesson in that for those of us who moralize about political engagement and people who don't vote.
Equally memorable were the complex arrangements and juggling and family support that her coworkers needed, relied on, and provided to others (including her) to help each other survive. Guendelsberger was barely keeping her head above water and only needed to support herself; many of her coworkers were raising and supporting children while doing these jobs. If you ever believed that people work low-paid jobs because they are lazy, On the Clock should permanently put that belief to rest. It also destroys the belief that these jobs are low-skill. The amount of skill demonstrated by the workers who survive the horrific turnover is amazing: short-term memory for fast-food workers, for example, or navigating amazingly awful computer UIs for customer support while simultaneously holding a conversation. It's just that most of those skills aren't easily transferable or aren't good resume fodder.
Speaking of awful computer UIs, the section on customer support work was almost painful to read as someone who works in the computer industry. For every call, the agents have to launch multiple independent programs, each with their own logins, and cut and paste information from various programs into others to bring up the necessary screens, all while greeting the caller and hearing the initial description of their problem. The system is not so much badly designed as not designed at all, just cobbled together from multiple systems with complete indifference to the user experience of the agents. The requirement that support agents repeatedly try to sell every caller on new products and services in order to get paid a livable wage is objectively worse (and worth remembering whenever you have to call customer support), but the refusal to invest a small amount of development work to make the tools work smoothly is professionally infuriating.
There is so much truly horrible software in the world that only people who work poorly-paid jobs for large corporations (or medical offices) ever see.
I've barely touched the surface on the great parts of this book. I could go on for hours about how good this is (and have, twice, to friends). It's a truly exceptional piece of investigative journalism that provides reporting, political analysis, personal stories, and fascinating profiles all at the same time. If you want to understand working-class America and aren't part of it, stop reading the endless New York Times interviews of people in diners and read this instead.
This is the best non-fiction book I've read this year, and is more valuable than innumerable opinion columns about the economic state of the country or the changing nature of work. More of this kind of reporting, please.
One parting thought: While writing this review, I looked through Guendelsberger's Twitter feed and noticed that, of the three jobs, the one people overwhelmingly want her to come on programs and talk about appears to be the Amazon job. To me, this highlights a point that Guendelsberger herself makes in the book. Amazon gets a lot of press because Amazon is new, rich, and ubiquitous among the people who read the news media writing these articles. But Amazon is in no way uniquely bad, just large and well-organized. They may be slightly ahead of the curve in bringing close monitoring to warehouse work, but this is an industry-wide practice. The other two jobs were in many ways worse — it's hard to describe how emotionally toxic call center work is, although Guendelsberger does an excellent job — but a few companies like Amazon get all the press and focus.
We need to stop thinking about this as a story of a few rich bad actors, and instead start thinking about it as a sweeping change in the nature of work that affects half the population and demands similarly systemic answers.