THE MULTIPLICITY OF voices that comprise Gig: Americans Talk About Their Jobs at the Turn of the Millennium are for the most part pragmatic and plainspoken... classic American voices, seemingly timeless; and yet as these 126 oral histories unfold, it becomes clear just how particular to their times they are. What they share, above all else, is the usually unstated recognition that these days it's every man for himself, and every woman for herself: no lifetime employment, no paternalistic bosses giving lip service to their welfare, and in the end no safety net--only the prospect of being made an example others won't want to follow. "There is no training for workfare workers," says Sandra White, a street cleaner in Manhattan since the bank where she worked for seven years downsized. "I was told by my supervisor that workfare was created to humiliate you, to give you the incentive to get off welfare."

Hers is one of the few patently hard-luck stories in Gig, but everyone else is on the same playing field, and most of them know it. Early on in the book, a steelworker named Denise Barber lays it on the line: "The company, when they have to cut, they cut workers. We're easiest. And what happens to their stock if they lay a bunch of us off? It jumps. It's the only thing this country is looking out for--the stock market.... Whatever you do, I've always taught my kids, you're not doing it for them, you're doing it for yourself. You have to respect your work, not who you're doing it for." How many people thought of their livelihoods in this way a generation ago? Gig's editors, for their part, expressly disavow any "political agenda." "Our sole position on work," one of them writes, "is that it's a fascinating topic and an elemental part of nearly everyone's life." But their studied detachment is a luxury their subjects can't afford: It's impossible to read the book straight through without being struck by a distinct and healthy loss of illusions on the part of American workers. That, and an underlying fear so muted that it's easy to miss.

The book opens with this passage from Ecclesiastes: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest." Which is meant to acknowledge the essential dignity of the stories it contains, and to underline the editors' apolitical bias (you know: Work, like the poor, is with us always). The epigraph echoes through the book as curse as much as benediction, for if nearly all the people in Gig find ways to cope with their jobs, there are few who find much meaning in them. The ones who do derive their satisfaction from conditions that don't apply in most contemporary workplaces: Their jobs bind them to the fabric of their communities, or the work they do is palpably useful to other people, or they're lucky enough to find in their jobs a sense of craft and tradition that they're proud to preserve.

Most of the people in Gig, by contrast, are painfully aware that they and their labors are worth exactly as much as they add to a balance sheet somewhere. Time and again they sound the same refrain. An ad exec: "I'm, like, telling people to go fuck themselves on a daily basis. And that's because being in this job, you realize that money is the bottom line in almost everything." An anesthesiologist: "Here the mentality is all--you know, in the United States everything is money... It's the money that talks." A bounty hunter: "I don't want to think about these people, you know, their lives and so forth, except to think about how I'm gonna bring them in.... You just focus on the manhunt. The dollar."

And this, from a Bosnian émigré software engineer: "There is talk about free markets, but [laughs] somehow I think it is just for big companies, not for the people that are working for them. You know, there is freedom to change jobs from one company to another company. But there is no freedom to get something real, like four weeks of vacation instead of two.... Capitalism is without any doubt more efficient.... But somehow the time spent working and buying everything--it takes too much of life."

There are few here who would disagree; the curious thing is how little they seem to feel in the way of anger or indignation. Partly it's a matter of who's doing the talking. In the past quarter century, the U.S. has seen a polarization of incomes and wealth unparalleled anywhere at any time since the dawn of the industrial age, and along with it an epochal transformation in the job market and a precipitous rise in the power and prerogatives of capital. The age has had its emblematic casualties, in other words--and most of them are conspicuously absent from Gig. There are no families in which both breadwinners are working two or three jobs to slow the steady erosion in their standard of living, no twentysomethings who have moved back into their parents' homes to compensate for their low-paying jobs, no displaced factory workers or middle managers pursuing futile courses of "retraining" while they work at McDonald's, no young people of color toiling in the underground economy because they're locked out of the other one. Most of the subjects of Gig are doing comparatively well--which is to say, they're at least getting by. And getting by is about as well as they expect to do, a point that is never more evident than when they begin to talk about where they hope to be in five or 10 or 20 years. Almost without exception the words seem hollow and pro forma; they have career plans because one is supposed to, but by and large they don't really believe what they're saying, or if they do, they find little savor in it. Which is not to suggest that the prevailing tone of these stories is abject or pitiable. There are those, like the corporate securities lawyer John Hart, who seem complete and despairing strangers to themselves. "I'm not a happy guy," is his terse, grim summation, but for every story like his there are a dozen others characterized by mordant (or callow) humor; most of the people here simply keep their heads low and do their jobs.

An air of distractedness pervades many of the stories, and if it's in part a testament to the frenetic, unstable state of the economy, it also betrays the subjects' desire not to think too hard about what they're doing or the circumstances in which they're doing it. Consequently it's often what they don't say that speaks the loudest. One of the most striking silences involves human connections forged in the workplace, or rather their apparent absence. "There's something lacking," says James X, a public-utilities bureaucrat. "I don't think people know how to make lasting friendships.... And people won't admit that, like--they just won't say, 'I'm lonely, I have nothing to do. I want to do this or that, but I have nobody to do it with.' " A sense of isolation--a hunch that it wouldn't pay to speak too openly, because no one would listen, or because what might be revealed couldn't be borne--is the secret lingua franca of these stories. This sense of barrenness isn't confined to the lower reaches of the food chain; a pharmaceuticals peddler boasts that his territory, the Upper East Side of Manhattan, accounts for more Prozac sales annually than the five-state territories of some of his cohorts.

In a milieu such as this, where you're only as good as last quarter's productivity figures, it's hardly surprising that the most zealous and enthusiastic voices belong to hustlers. The most chilling tale in Gig's 545 pages is told by Neal Smither, the founder of a company that scrubs the gore from crime and accident scenes. (He got the idea watching Pulp Fiction, of course.) He's a character straight out of Dostoevsky, a bright, hard-working sociopath who's having the time of his life. He talks about his work with an obscene, unmitigated glee. It isn't a question of gallows humor, which would be understandable. It's the money, stupid. You can make a killing cleaning up after killers. ("I want to be bodyguard rich," he exults at one point. "So rich that I need a bodyguard wherever I go.") Partway through telling his story, he mentions in passing that he's waiting for the moving truck: He's leaving his wife today because she's had the temerity to complain that they don't spend time together. "I don't really have time for a relationship and I don't really care," he says, and you can practically hear the breathlessness and remorselessness with which he says it. "I have no life outside of this. Because the company is my girl, my dope."

He's a happy guy. And why not? In Darwinian terms he's a creature perfectly selected for his environment--our environment, like it or not. For most of the inhabitants of Gig, however, there remains the lingering sense of maladaptation, the suspicion that one's life and one's work are supposed to amount to more than a rear-guard battle against feeling a little more used up every day. That's where the current of hope and good humor in their stories comes from, and the terror.