Separating “Job” from “You”

In the introduction to Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, she talks fairly well of her life in the modern era, and her reasons for working despite the bare, and cruel depth of the low-wage crisis. Despite having some contrast to the many narratives in Working by Stud Terkel, she finds some common grounds with him, where in one of the praises on her novel Terkel says that she “attempts to be that nobody who barely subsists on her essential labors.” Barbara presents herself as “of course, very different from the people who normally fill America’s least attractive jobs, and in ways that both helped and limited” (6) her, dictating her advantages with “being white and a native English speaker,” (6) “the car,” (7) and “made no effort to play a role or fit into some imaginative stereotype of low-wage working women” (7). What she presents in her brief autobiographical work tale, is fitting to almost every single working class member of society in connection to getting jobs.

In most jobs today, we must be presentable, and most definitely have to sell ourselves in order to get the “best” jobs, or rather, the ultimate goal, which are careers in society. It is not a surprise that her autobiographical piece works as another narration, similar to Terkel’s adaptations of numerous narrators, like the Waitress, who is proud of her social skills and portrays her ability to work at what she does, like what Barbara does in her introduction but also play out as different from the rest. Hoping to stand out and to remain sane and away from the “drone-like workers” as she states, she dictates “the supposition being that an educated person is ineradicably different, and in a superior direction, from your workaday drones,” (8) hinting on the difference of speculation ability between both sides. It is interesting that she takes this common, overarching approach on how many, but not all, people in middle-class respects feel superior and completely reverses it on us, saying that “low-wage workers are no more homogeneous in personality or ability than people who write for a living, and no less likely to be funny or bright” (8). 

Tying that back to Martin Eden, we can definitely say that, his machismo, and his sailor life reflected on the “writer,” this “cog-like” machinery did affect his work, as much as his work did him. Presenting the ability to read, and ambition to write, while having such a physicality to him, he had such a driving “work-a-holic” narrative that made it inseparable. With this in mind, it is similar to how Barbara in “Nickel and Dimed” gets us ready by presenting herself, and what she was presented as “people knew as a waitress, a cleaning person, a nursing home aide, or a retail clerk, not because she acted like one but because that’s what she “was”” (9). The only, and most interesting difference is how she dictates her separation from others, not phased by any other people, which allows for that radical effort away from society.

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One thought on “Separating “Job” from “You”

  1. Your post makes me think it would be interesting to write a paper about narratives of labor and identity: how many of the books we’ve read feature narrators or protagonists who find, uncannily, that their work changes them into new, unfamiliar people?

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