On fascinating ‘Working’ series, Barack Obama learns how people make a living in this moment

The ex-president takes inspiration from Studs Terkel, keeping the Netflix docuseries’ focus on the individuals doing the jobs.

SHARE On fascinating ‘Working’ series, Barack Obama learns how people make a living in this moment
Working_What_We_Do_All_Day_S1_E1_00_41_53_03_1.png

Narrator Barack Obama shops with Randi, a home care aide in Mississippi, on “Working: What We Do All Day.”

Netflix

Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” plays on the soundtrack as we see a photo of a young Barack Obama pulling a book from a library shelf and we hear the former president in present day:

“Sometime in college, I came across this book called ‘Working’ by Studs Terkel, which was a chronicle of people from every walk of life and what it was like for them to work.”

Cut to footage of the legendary Terkel explaining how he wanted to get to the “quintessential truth” by talking to individuals from all walks of life, with all sorts of jobs. Obama talks about the sweeping changes to the workplace we’ve seen in recent times, or we see lurking around the corner—the onset of artificial intelligence, more and more people working from home, the spiraling inequality between the upper-tier management and those on the bottom of the ladder—and poses the question: “What if we pick up Studs’ project for this new moment?”

‘Working: What We Do All Day’

Untitled

A four-part series available Wednesday on Netflix.

That’s the fascinating, enlightening and sometimes sobering framework for the four-part Netflix documentary series “Working: What We Do All Day,” from Barack and Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground Productions, with Barack Obama serving as narrator and tour guide. Director Caroline Suh provides skillful visual articulation to the hopes and dreams—and setbacks—of everyone from hourly workers who juggle more than one job and still struggle mightily to make ends meet, to the CEOs and founders who live in a world of penthouse apartments and private jets. (We also meet a CEO who laughs when she’s asked if she makes $100,000 a year. It’s not nearly that much.)

Focusing on the fields of home care, tech and hospitality, each episode of “Working” takes us inside a particular level of employment within three companies, as we meet a diverse group of hardworking and dedicated and, yes, sometimes frustrated members of the workforce as they pursue the 21st century version of the Great American Dream. For some, that means simply being able to pay the bills and take care of their family. For others, it might include finally being able to buy a new house. For a relatively few, it means the proverbial “having it all.”

In Episode 1, “Service Jobs,” we meet Elba, who has worked for more than 20 years as a housekeeper at the iconic Pierre Hotel on the Upper East Side; Randi, an aide starting a new job with Home Care Mississippi, and Carmen, a delivery driver in Pittsburgh who dreams of becoming a makeup artist.

“Sometimes if you say good morning [to the guests], they don’t respond,” says the upbeat and resilient Elba. “They dress better than me, but they are no better than me.”

Meanwhile, in Mississippi, Randi learns her duties will include cooking, cleaning the house, running errands, bathing and changing diapers for the senior clients—and the pay is $9 an hour. “I used to work in a chicken plant,” she tells us. “[Deboning] chicken thighs. It was horrifying. But you made $16 an hour.”

Says Obama in VO: “The jobs are more like a treadmill than a foothold … but what if you could make that jump to the middle class?”

We’re also introduced to Luke, a data manager at Aurora Innovation in Pittsburgh, which develops self-driving technology. In later episodes, we’ll meet a senior robotics engineer at the Pittsburgh company and then the CEO and co-founder, a hotshot who came over from Google. To say they experience the workplace from different angles is an understatement. At times “Working” plays like an extended episode of “Undercover Boss,” only no one is undercover.

When Luke sits around a break room table with his peers, they all talk of how great it felt to make that climb from jobs that paid hourly wages to something more stable. Says one co-worker: “If you are given an opportunity to do something more of what you want to do, that pays you a fair wage, your mind unlocks. I remember thinking, ‘OK, I can only get $25 worth of gas, or I can’t get groceries for the rest of the week.’ Now I can just get gas. Money doesn’t bring happiness, but it certainly provides the means to find it.”

In addition to the always interesting profiles, the series provides some brief but helpful looks back at the history of the workplace in America, and some nifty pop culture touches, as when Obama notes so many popular TV shows in the 1970s featured relatable families “who weren’t poor, but weren’t rich either,” e.g., “Sanford & Son” and “All in the Family,” whereas 1980s TV was often about people with obscene wealth: “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” and “Dallas.”

The series wisely limits Obama’s on-camera presence to some brief interviews with various subjects; any more than that, and it would have become a documentary about Barack Obama chatting up workers and executives in their homes and offices. Not that that wouldn’t make for good TV; it’s just that “Working: What We Do All Day,” like Terkel’s book, isn’t about the storyteller, it’s about the workers. From the Pierre Hotel housekeeper spending her days in an endless cycle of making up rooms, 30-40 minutes per room, to the CEO of the multinational conglomerate for which the Pierre is just one relatively small holding, they all have stories worth telling.

The Latest
Eleven people were shot in an attack Saturday at a family celebration. A 9-year-old girl was killed. The family pushed back on online reports that they were involved in gangs.
Mr. Grossman was the principal writer of the 1967 Illinois Housing Development Act, which established the Illinois Housing Development Authority to finance affordable housing across Illinois. He also hosted an early coffee at his Hyde Park home for Barack Obama when he was running for state Senate.
The Sox’ bleak start to the season continues. They have a five-game losing streak, a 1-8 record at home after the latest loss and shutout, a 2-0 to the Royals, and now a 2-14 record.
The high court is reviewing a law that’s popular among federal prosecutors — including those pursuing former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan.
The Cubs are coming off a series victory in Seattle that was made possible by staunch defense.