In 2020, the Academy Award for Documentary Feature went to “American Factory,” a portrait of a former General Motors plant taken over by Fuyao, a Chinese company that lowered safety standards and pay while fiercely resisting unionization. The Oscar was a victory not just for filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert, but for the company that acquired “American Factory” as its first major feature: Higher Ground, the production outfit of former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama.
The new Netflix series “Working” — subtitle: “What We Do All Day” — is inspired by the Studs Terkel book of the same name, published in 1974. But it’s also an informal sequel of sorts to “American Factory,” making many of the same points about the evolution of labor and the erosion of the middle class. “Working” also shares with its predecessor the same inherent tensions that stem directly from the Obamas’ sign-on. In the case of “Working,” the country’s 44th commander in chief is more than just a name in the credits; he’s also the narrator and on-camera host, reprising his dual role from prior Higher Ground series “Our Great National Parks.” That hands-on involvement only underlines the nature of “Working,” and Higher Ground projects as a whole. It’s a stand-alone political message that’s also a piece of a larger political legacy. Inevitably, the latter overshadows and complicates the former.
Directed by Caroline Suh, “Working” is divided into four parts and three industries. Beginning with service work, every installment ascends a rung of the class ladder, progressing upward through middle managers, knowledge workers and, finally, the executives on top. “Working” illustrates these hierarchies not just throughout the economy, but within specific workplaces: a home health aide agency in southern Mississippi; a luxury hotel in New York City; and a tech startup working to automate long-distance trucking, with outposts in Pittsburgh and Silicon Valley. At the hotel, we start with a housekeeper who cleans several dozen rooms a day and end with the chairman of the Indian conglomerate that owns the hospitality group.
All of these businesses represent some aspect of the modern workforce, from the care and service sectors that have replaced manufacturing as the quintessential American professions to the technology companies that “disrupt” the status quo, for better and for worse. There are also stark differences among these case studies. The hotel, for instance, is unionized, protecting jobs some peers have eliminated and ensuring a high standard of pay. The home healthcare agency, on the other hand, pays just $10 an hour, with few benefits and no hazard pay during the pandemic. Even within the same tech company, an on-staff engineer and a contractor can have wildly opposite experiences.
It’s Obama’s job to put these disparities in context and advance a narrative about what work is and should be. He does this principally via voiceover, which alternates between generic outtakes from a standard Democratic stump speech (a middle-class life is “a great — maybe the great — American idea”) and pocket histories accompanied by animation and stock footage. Compared to the nuance of the real lives surveyed by Suh and her producers, such summaries can be reductive. Shifting attitudes toward wealth over the decades come down to “All in the Family,” “Dallas,” and “Friends”; in Obama’s telling, workers’ rights in America began with the New Deal, with no mention of the extralegal struggles that preceded it.
Obama also interacts with the subjects of “Working,” who the show otherwise observes on the clock. But in conversations with the former president, they share their broader hopes, dreams and fears. Walking through a supermarket, a single parent explains she had to quit her health aide job because the hours weren’t flexible enough to accommodate childcare. Giving a tour of the first house he had to stretch to afford, a tech worker admits his true passion, music, will likely never be his 9 to 5. These scenes make better use of the extraordinary charisma that allows Obama to genuinely connect with everyday citizens, even as he casually mentions he hasn’t regularly driven a car in over a decade. They’re also when he articulates the larger goal he wants “Working” to serve. “I actually feel pretty good. I achieved most of the goals I set,” he says when asked about his mindset post-presidency. “It has to do with more than just me. I worry about the next generation.”
This exchange comes close to articulating the ethos behind both “Working” and Higher Ground: that, when no longer in the White House, the best way for the Obamas to effect change for that next generation is through culture and the soft power that comes with it. Most of Higher Ground’s output has aligned with some kind of liberal cause, whether the conservation of natural resources (“Our Great National Parks”), childhood nutrition (“Waffles + Mochi”) or civic engagement (“The G Word with Adam Conover”). “Working” is no different, advancing an uncontroversial yet increasingly unattainable ideal for how jobs can provide both sustenance and meaning. “A good job is one where you feel seen and valued and might have the chance to grow,” Obama intones. “When we make sure that everyone feels their work is respected…we reinforce the trust between us that makes everything in our lives possible.”
But of course, Obama is not some outside force working to influence the system. He’s a politician who occupied a position of enormous power for almost a decade. This fact looms over “Working,” which can couch deeply ideological arguments as neutral observations. “Let’s be blunt,” Obama says. “There’s always someone at the top of the ladder and someone at the bottom. That’s especially true with capitalism, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise.” As leftist critiques have gained traction within Obama’s own party, this reads less like an obvious truth and more like a subjective worldview from someone who’s always been more centrist than socialist. That sensibility is partly reflected in “Working,” which loses some bite as it shifts focus from those struggling to get by to the CEOs running the show. Obama does lament corporate greed, but naturally, the leaders who afforded “Working” access aren’t identified as any of the bad ones.
Obama’s actual track record in office and its effect on the conditions outlined in “Working” are mostly implied around the margins. In Mississippi, the tenuous nature of home care work is partly pinned on the Republican governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid, one of the bulwarks of the Affordable Care Act — Obama’s signature piece of legislation. (The state remains one of just 10 to not expand the program.) At other points, there’s more daylight between the actions of Obama the president and Obama the executive producer. “Working” is vocally critical of tech companies’ role in propagating the gig economy, following one Uber Eats driver who makes less than minimum wage. But his onetime administration was so cozy with Big Tech that many of Obama’s former colleagues have worked with the same corporations driving the shifts “Working” decries: David Plouffe at Uber; Jay Carney at Amazon; Valerie Jarrett on the board of Lyft.
“Working” itself airs on Netflix, Higher Ground’s partner since 2018 and a company currently being called out by the striking Writers Guild of America for catalyzing upheavals in Hollywood that have undermined steady employment. (Higher Ground has also inked deals with Spotify and Amazon’s Audible.) The show cannot and should not be judged by Obama alone, but his presence is a double-edged sword, helping “Working” to acquire an audience while subjecting it to tougher questions than if it were merely an empathetic, well-crafted portrayal of modern employment. In the Trump years, the enthusiasm of Obama’s election could curdle into the suspicion that his accomplishments were more aesthetic than structural, offering semi-annual playlists in lieu of lasting solutions to major problems. Much of Higher Ground’s work feels like a tacit admission that this is precisely the case, with “Working” only the latest example.
All episodes of “Working: What We Do All Day” are now streaming on Netflix.