Deconstructing the concept of “working stiffs”

Has anybody ever deconstructed/unpacked/contemplated the term “working stiff?”

On the surface, of course, it’s a way to say ordinary workers.  It’s aimed more at blue collar folks than white collar folks, people who are struggling to get by more than the affluent.

But the term “stiff” also refers to a corpse.  And this leads to several potential deeper implications.  None of them pretty.

The possible meanings of the term “working stiff”:

#1) The act of working a blue collar job kills the worker; much like we’d call somebody a walking corpse if they were close to death.

#2) Somebody who has a blue collar/barely surviving existence is already dead.  Much like we might say that watching too much TV is a zombie.

There are strikingly different idealogies hovering under each possibility above.  If #1 is true, the whole labor system is inherently corrupt.  It’s sort of a socialist-thing.  #2, on the other hand, implies an elitism, a natural superiority of the cultural elite, the wealthy, the affluent.

Either way, it’s not a pretty picture.


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

3 thoughts on “Deconstructing the concept of “working stiffs””

  1. i encourage you to open a Word file and look up “stiff”. you haven’t even begun to “unpack, deconstruct, contemplate” the possibilities of the term. you first have to decide if it’s a noun or an adjective. that would depend largely on the indentifyer preceding it.

    speaking as a ‘working stiff’ myself: i think in the sense you’re describing, it’s not so bad. some jobs just aren’t that exciting. many are terribly repetitive and can sort of “kill” the spirit. take the post office for instance…

    but alas it is what you make of it. i prefer to apply most of the supplied definitions of ‘stiff’ as possibilities from time to time, depending on my mood.

    by and large i’d say you have penchant for being sullen in your world view – and a bit existentialist. don’t be trapped by the temptation to define yourself and others too heavily by external factors.

    back to the post office.
    most of us who work there would say that the moment we realized applying for a job there seemed like a good idea, we were already ‘dead’.


  2. Jeff, a simple objection to your thesis. We also say “lucky stiff,” using stiff in clearly exactly the same sense, but this phrase doesn’t fit your deconstruction at all. The phrases “working stiff” and “lucky stiff” both came about in about 1930 and were using stiff from its earlier meaning of a “contemptible person.” (You can deconstruct that if you like.) It morphed to mean simply an ordinary person of no distinction. It is true that stiff in the sense of corpse has been around for longer, but it’s not at all clear that the two have any connection to each other.


  3. Thanks guys, for your thoughts.
    Sullen is a fair description of me, lots of the time. Existentialist? Hmmm. Obviously I’m not in the more common atheistic formulations.
    I do understand why the existentialists end up where they do. (That is, I can see how a lack of relationship with the creator can lead to their conclusions) I think that Solomon was the original existentialist, and Eclisastes is my favorite book of the OT.
    I do recognize that I live in an amazing country at an amazing time. But I also feel called and challeneged and spurred on by the prophetic strains of the bible. (Not prophecy in the sense of future predictions, but prophetic in the sense of speaking out against percieved injustices) I spent a while trying to create that sentence in a way that didn’t seem to imply I’m on a level with the prophets… I’m not making the claim that I’m an Elijah, I’m simply saying that this is a strain of scripture that moves me.
    As for the subject of being a working stiff, I’d consider myself one, too. And I love what I do. I think the term says interesting things about our perceptions as more than it says about the reality.

    It seems to me that we use the term “lucky stiff” with a subtle sense of resentment. I wonder if I’m reading into the term to suggest that we wouldn’t use to describe somebody we were glad got whatever they recieved.
    If somebody who ran a soup kitchen won the lottery, we’d be unlikely to call them a “lucky stiff” I think. If somebody slaved away in the cubicle next to us and won the lottery, we would.
    Similarly, if somebody was upper middle class and moved into the very wealthy by winning the lottery, we’d be less likely to call them a working stiff than if they began in a lower class and won.
    Therefore, it seems to me that the use of the term “lucky stiff” actually does fit into my unpacking. I think that it denotes a symbolic corpse who has somehow been lucky, perhaps so lucky that he will no longer engage in the deadening work.
    Maybe I’m hair splitting here… The point you bring up is a fair one. What do you think?


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