Up in the Air, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed

Nickel and Dimed shows the plight of low wage workers in America in the pre-recession years.

Dunreith and I kicked off our weekend last night by taking a long walk around Evanston, with the requisite stops at Whole Foods, Vinic (a relatively new wine joint, where we sampled a couple of whites and a red), and Video Adventure, our Nextflix alternative.

Our choice: the Academy Award-nominated Up in the Air. For those who have not seen it, the Jason Reitman-directed film stars George Clooney as Ryan Bingham, an emotionally detached, jet setting Omaha native who is flown all over the countries by companies to fire their employees.

Bingham’s life goal is to become the seventh frequent flyer in American Airlines history to accumulate 10 million miles.  He totes around a backpack to motivational speaking gigs in which he espouses a self-described philosophy of urging people to strip unecessary material possessions and relationships from their  lives so that they can proceed in as unencumbered a fashion as possible.

The cool equilibrium Bingham has forged starts to come undone when a tryst with Vera Farmiga and the potential grounding of his work through a computer system devised by Anna Kendrick.

Some of the film’s most painful moments come during the firings, when ordinary people ask their job executioners how they are going to tell their spouses and support their children, when they ask what they have done wrong, or when they express outrage at the years they have given to the company, only to be discarded in so callously impersonal a manner.

The people fired in the film are largely white-collar workers. About a decade ago, long-time lefty writer Babara Ehrenreich went undercover to work in more service and cleaning industry settings.

Nickel and Dimed is the result of her time.

The story is a bleak one.

Ehrenreich describes in convincing detail the physical toll, the distorted sense of loyalty and the impossibly low wages that make it essentially impossible for workers in that part of the economy either to have a comfortable lifestyle or to get out of that rung of the economy.

Ehrenreich notes that she was in strong physical condition, but rapidly found her body getting worn down by the impact of the labor and the smells of the materials she and the other ladies used.

This sector, like so many others in the Great Recession, has sustained a major blow.  Ehrenreich’s work is a chilly reminder of the physical toil so many workers undergo for far lower wages than the people Clooney and Kendrick sack in Reitman’s commercially successful film.

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