If you work hard, you can achieve wealth beyond your wildest dreams: This simple sentence encapsulates the idea of the American Dream, the idea that no matter where you are born or what your background is, you can make it America if you work hard. This sentiment encouraged countless people to travel great distances to come to America, all in the hopes of obtaining their own piece of the American Dream. Unfortunately, the reality is that the American Dream is not so easy, even when someone works very hard.
As demonstrated in Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” hard work does not always lead to wealth, and some people work fruitlessly their entire lives without experiencing the idea of wealth that motivated their industriousness. On the other hand, sometimes people do achieve the wealth they have sought, as indicated in “The Company Man,” though this wealth comes at a terrible price. “Nickel and Dimed” and “The Company Man” illustrate the difficulty of truly obtaining the American Dream and the horrific consequences that result if someone is lucky enough to obtain it, respectively.
“Nickel and Dimed” demonstrates just how difficult achieving the American Dream can be, as simply finding a place to live can be challenging. This is clear in the beginning of the story, when the protagonist struggles to find a place to live: “My first task is to find a place to live…I can afford to spend $500 on rent, or maybe, with severe economies, $600. In the Key West area, where I live, this pretty much confines me to flophouses and trailer homes” (Ehrenreich 238). The narrator details that finding a suitable place to live is extremely hard, particularly if one makes “$7 an hour” (Ehrenreich 238).
The narrator also wisely points out that this problem does not just pertain to Key West; it also pertains to any other major area, such as New York, Jackson Hole, and “any other place where tourists and the wealthy compete for living space with the people who clean their toilets and fry their hash browns” (Ehrenreich 238). The narrator realizes that hard work does not necessarily translate to financial rewards, and this is why the narrator realizes that the type of work plays a large role in received income, as evidenced by the question: “But is it really possible to make a living on the kinds of jobs currently available to unskilled people?” (Ehrenreich 239) However, there is a major demand for unskilled work in America despite the low pay, which is why so many people accept these jobs.
The narrator is one of those people who accepts unskilled labor, and she experiences the negative consequences associated with this job and the lack of financial benefits that result from it. Though she works hard, the narrator feels a sense of dehumanization: “In real life I am moderately brave, but plenty of brave people shed their courage in concentration camps, and maybe something similar goes on in the infinitely more congeal milieu of the low-wage American workplace” (Ehrenreich 254). The narrator waits tables in restaurants in an effort to get by, and after “the perfect storm” (Ehrenreich 254) of four monstrous tables, the narrator walks out and quits her job, which allows her a brief respite from workplace abuses before financial panic sets in.
The narrator has minimal money leftover at the end of a given month: “In one month, I had earned approximately $1,040 and spent $517 on food, gas, toiletries, laundry, phone, and utilities” (Ehrenreich 256). During this time period, the narrator did not purchase clothes or any other items that would have brought her a small amount of pleasure; instead, she sagely remarks, “All I know is that I couldn’t hold two jobs and I couldn’t make enough money to live on with one” (Ehrenreich 256). This is a tragic reality for many Americans today, particularly families. Some might argue against “Nickel and Dimed,” claiming that had the narrator obtained a proper education, she would be able to enjoy the American Dream.
However, “The Company Man,” a story about a man who did achieve the American Dream, proves otherwise, as the protagonist achieves everything material and loses everything substantial. The story opens on a dark note: “He worked himself to death, finally and precisely, at 3:00 A.M. Sunday morning” (Goodman 195). Phil had held a respectable position; he was the vice president of a prominent company. However, this position required long work hours and immense stress: “He worked six days a week, five of them until eight or nine at night, during a time when his own company had begun the four-day week for everyone but the executives” (Goodman 195).
Phil had no “extracurricular interests” (Goodman 195), and even though “he had a lot of people working for him” (Goodman 195), Phil apparently gained little from his work aside from money. For this reason, his wife was filled with bitterness at the funeral, though she looked forward to the financial payout: “The widow didn’t look him in the eye. She was afraid he would read her bitterness and, after all, she would need him to straighten out the finances—the stock options and all that” (Goodman 196). Thus, even to Phil’s family, he was mainly a source of money. Even if someone does achieve the American Dream, material wealth is the main result.
“Nickel and Dimed” illustrates the difficulty of obtaining the American Dream while “The Company Man” illustrates the empty results of this dream. In “Nickel and Dimed,” the narrator unsuccessfully works two jobs and admits that even though she cannot handle two, she also cannot live on one. Conversely, “The Company Man” demonstrates that even when someone achieves the American Dream, the results are usually superficial in nature. If someone works too hard, they can die and not even enjoy what they worked so hard for. These two stories present two different views of success in America, and when evaluating both, it appears that the American Dream should be reevaluated.
- Connelly, Mark. The Sundance Writer, 5th ed.: A Rhetoric, Reader, Research Guide, and Handbook. Boston: Wadsworth, 2013.