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Saturday, September 17th, 2005


Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

by Barbara Ehrenreich

A review by Gerry Donaghy

Back in 2001, Barbara Ehrenreich published a book examining the plight of America's lowest wage earners. In Nickel and Dimed, she detached herself from all of the security nets that her education, experience, and social stature provided and worked in some of the lowest paying jobs in the country. Whether she was a waitress, a house cleaner, or a blue-vested minion of Wal-Mart, Ehrenreich experienced the tenuous existence that confronts a growing population of the American workforce. It was a service industry Black Like Me.

Never one to not follow an argument to its logical conclusion, Ehrenreich returns to examine life in the next tier of socioeconomic mobility. In Bait and Switch, she turns her attention to the while-collar middle class. These are the individuals would have read Nickel and Dimed and scoffed that there was nothing wrong with these folks that a little education, ambition, and flexibility couldn't take care of. Now, they are the collateral damage of American corporatism. These are the people who educated themselves, put in the long hours at the office and relocated if necessary, only to be discarded in the wake of a merger, or corporate "rightsizing." As the corporate workplace continues to hemorrhage employees, the competition for even entry-level work becomes ferocious.

Returning to her undercover mode, Ehrenreich undergoes the transformation from recognized columnist and high-profile bleeding heart, to a middle-aged professional attempting to re-enter the workplace after an extended hiatus in employment. What she discovers is an unending parade of networking sessions, career coaching, and, ultimately, no job offers. To be fair, she is offered two actual positions: selling AFLAC insurance and Mary Kay cosmetics. But neither of these are jobs per se. They are more like opportunities to earn income without any of the benefits, such as health insurance, paid sick days, or even an office to work out of. (Now, before anybody bothers to point out that as Barbara Ehrenreich, the nationally published writer, she already works for herself, probably pays her own health insurance, and works out of a home office, I'm already aware of that. But we're not talking about Barbara Ehrenreich the writer; we're talking about Barbara Alexander -- her maiden name, the middle-aged job seeker that is much more representative of her case study).

Critics of Nickel and Dimed frequently point out that by casting herself alone in the world, without any of the support network of friends and relatives that most Americans have, she was doomed from the start, and biased her study. And a similar argument will probably be leveled against this new book as well. (How can somebody have been in the workplace for any length of time and have not built some network of friends, colleagues, and contacts?). These critics, old and new, would be missing the larger point that a lot of Americans don't have these networks. Whether it's a homeless person who has no family to rely on, and no friends except their fellow dispossessed, or a middle-class woman trying to re-enter the workplace after a divorce or raising a family, it should be fairly evident that these networks are not universal.

To be fair to her critics, Ehrenreich often displays a shocking naiveté when confronted with certain middle-class realities, such as strip malls, subpar franchise eateries, and low-end motel rooms. At one point, she mistakes the signature pink packages of Mary Kay cosmetics for candy from a distance. I don't know if it's her attempt at humor or irony, but such surprise, or possibly thinly veiled contempt, only fuels critics of the left, enabling them to throw around such phrases as limousine liberals and liberal elite, and don't serve to bolster her argument in the slightest. And, by choosing to make herself the main focus of this study, she becomes, in effect, her own worst-case scenario.

Perhaps if Ehrenreich had chosen to examine the lives of her fellow job seekers more thoroughly, she may have come up with a study with more bite. How did all of the unfortunate job seekers find themselves reduced to meeting at some (admittedly) grotesque locations looking for scraps of information that might lead to a job? Why don't they have the networks that the comfortably employed assume they have? This would have been a more richly satisfying book had the author not chosen to flesh out these people at the end as a footnote to her experience. Without fuller backstories, the grim outcome of these people feels like a punch line without the joke.

What is effectively evoked by this book, however, is the circus of predators who feed off the hopes and desperation of these job seekers. These are companies or organizations that offer everything from résumé enhancement to career coaching. What comes across in Bait and Switch is how often contradictory the advice and services these companies provide can be. One person says to carpet bomb a potential employer with unsolicited résumés, another says that résumés are passé, and that you should instead send letters that tell a company what you can do for them. Career coaches that use personality tests to help people find the right jobs come up with contradictory results, often while employing the same test. And when it comes to organizations that charge money just for the privilege of sitting in the same room with potential movers and shakers looking for fresh meat, they come across as clueless and helpless as the desperate job seekers who utilize their services.

Ultimately, this book lacks the impact and justified indignation of Nickel and Dimed. Perhaps if it was either a Studs Turkel-esque series of interviews with the rapidly downward mobile or a satirical exposé of the sharks that circle them, it would have been a more relevant look at the consequences of our obsession with corporate culture and our obliviousness to its victims. As it stands, it is a fairly solipsistic treatise on how hard it is to get a job. What Ehrenreich went through trying to get a job is far from unique, but her account lacks enough gravitas that could be useful to readers facing such a daunting challenge.

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