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Undercover with Barbara Ehrenreich

Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America hit the shelves, quickly becoming both a runaway bestseller, a New York Times Notable Book of 2001, and a modern classic. Ehrenreich's undercover investigation into low-wage America—the world of the working poor—struck a chord with readers across the country, as she struggled to pay rent, buy clothes (even at Wal-Mart, one of her places of employment), or eat anything other than fast food on the meager pay from minimum-wage jobs. Barbara Ehrenreich

Now, in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich takes on the world of white-collar unemployment—a world that is becoming more familiar, unhappily, to more and more Americans. She legally changed her name to Barbara Alexander, lined up people to support her new résumé as a public relations professional, and plunged into the job-transition industry, an eerie no-man's land filled with unscrupulous (and ultimately unhelpful) job coaches, boot camps, and networking prayer breakfasts.

The Washington Post calls Bait and Switch "a worthy companion to Nickel and Dimed," and Kirkus Reviews reports, "Another unsettling message about an ugly America from a trustworthy herald. Read it and weep—especially if you're a job-seeker." Barbara Ehrenreich's new book is as acerbic and witty as only she can be, but it is also chilling in its indictment of an incompetent, downsized, and overworked America.

Jill: What surprised you most about doing the work for Bait and Switch?

Barbara Ehrenreich: It was a surprise right from the beginning. Now, we're talking on a very basic philosophical level. I'm a journalist, I'm educated as a scientist, I operate in a fact- and logic-based world. What I did not know is that I was leaving it, as I entered these fringes of the corporate world. I expected the corporate world would be very logical and rational, bottom-line oriented. So right from the start, I was disoriented, with, for example, my very first career coach, the guy who illustrated his "lessons," such as they were, with Wizard of Oz dolls—and an Elvis doll, too!—and that was the first clue to me that this was a whole other metaphysical framework that I was entering.

Jill: Why do you think there is this irrationality, or mysticism, surrounding the job transition industry?

Ehrenreich: Well, I think it's not just the job transition industry. I've read now fifteen to twenty business advice books and "success in business" books, which often contain what seemed to me delusional and mystical kinds of views of the world. Generally, that you can control the world with your thoughts and your attitude. And they've got blurbs from CEOs on the backs. Books that advise you to accept your fate, and to concentrate on having a positive attitude no matter what, are mega-bestsellers, like Who Moved My Cheese? And that's a book, by the way—and I don't want to undercut sales of your business books [Laughs]—but that's a book that corporations buy multiple copies of so that their white-collar employees can read it, and sit in groups and discuss it. So I think that the strange aspects of the culture I encountered for laid-off and transitional people extend into the corporate world.

Jill: The language of corporate America has often seemed vague to me. The résumé-building and the résumé coach that you had seemed to affirm this, in part. Why do you think that is, that the language of the corporate world can be so unclear, and/or so divorced from reality?

Ehrenreich: For one thing, it's evasive. You use a kind of jargon—you don't get pinned down that way. I noticed, for example, in my foray into the Public Relations Society of America, that the favorite word of our instructor in one training I went to was "strategic." It sounds good, you know? So you don't just want to plan, you want to plan "strategically." But what other kind of planning is there, really? So there will be buzzwords.

Another thing that contributes to the jargon, I think, is the extreme conformity that is demanded of people in the corporate world. You want to look the same as other people, you want to use the same language, to fit in, and there seems to be a lot of anxiety about not fitting in, not being seen as a "team player," who's identical to everybody else. I know publishing is different, because that's the part of the world that I've had the most contact with as an author, and it allows for a great deal more individuality and self-expression.

Jill: It would have to, one would hope, to keep fostering good books. I was fascinated by the idea of going to an image consultant, in part because at Powells.com we're very casual, comparatively. And because it has concrete, immediate results—not in terms of getting you a job, but it's a specific thing that would make you a better package. But it seemed to be a depressing experience for you, sort of the nail in the coffin of making yourself a commodity.

Ehrenreich: When you've gone months without finding a job, you start to think, all the time, what's wrong with me? Is it something about my résumé, or is it the impression I make on people, how can I pump that up? So it was in that frame of mind that I went for an image makeover. I didn't even know that there was such a thing, but when you're job-hunting, you're always online, you're always Googling around. I came across this image consultant, and said, well, okay, I'll shell out two hundred and fifty dollars and turn myself into a corporate type. You, by the way, are not a corporate type. [Laughs]

Jill: Not at all, no.

Ehrenreich: Black is not a good idea.

Jill: I know! I was quite surprised to read that. Do you think that's a consequence of being in Atlanta, though? I'd imagine that in New York or San Francisco—

Ehrenreich: Yes, in New York or San Francisco you could wear more black. But in the middle of the country, or in the South, no. That's what this particular image consultant said to me, anyway. What I found so dismaying about it was the thought that people could be judged on such tiny features of themselves. It hadn't occurred to me—and this may sound really naive—that your slacks or your skirt have to absolutely match, in fabric and in color, your jacket. And, for example, dangly earrings could sink you. That earrings could sink your chances of a job. I had a lapel pin on—which is the only one I have. It's very conservative, and was given to me, and it's simple, silver and round. It wasn't corporate, the image consultant said. I couldn't really explain that. So are good people being rejected from jobs because their lapel pin is the wrong shape? And if so, what is happening in corporate America?

I want to add, too, that there are special pressures on women in this whole area of self-presentation, because men have been at this for longer; they have their own uniform. Although they can screw up, too. I remember one guy, at a job fair, sort of lecturing some of us who were hanging around his table, saying, in a shocked voice, "So-and-so went to apply for a Wall Street job in a blue shirt." Apparently it had to be white, on Wall Street. Is this how people are being judged? I can't answer that—I can only throw these questions out. But it does make you worry—among many things, it makes me worry—about the levels of competence in corporate America.

Jill: It's a good point. If these coaches and consultants are right, and you're being judged more on your plumped-up résumé, positive attitude, and dress sense than your actual skills and abilities—

Ehrenreich: This is exactly how we got Michael D. Brown running FEMA. Fake résumé, nice-looking guy—I'm sure his suits and shirts are the right color—and well-connected. I can see more clearly now, since Katrina, how you can get outrageous levels of incompetence at high levels through the way people are brought into jobs.

Jill: In general, I do tend to assume, and I think most people tend to assume, that there's a basic level of competence, that most people do know what they're doing, that our country is running on rational industry out there.

Ehrenreich: I had this moment right at the start, when I was meeting the Wizard of Oz career coach, in Starbucks, and it occurred to me for a second there to marvel that people were actually paying for their coffee and muffins and how could that happen, if there weren't rational people somewhere, figuring out supply lines and processes and so on. But for the first time I was kind of shaken. Maybe corporations really can't do stuff. Maybe they're all like Halliburton in Iraq.

Another point about the conformity issue is that there was some loosening up, in the mid-nineties, until the dot-com bust. Because dot-coms introduced a new vision of corporate culture, which was that your creativity ranked highest. And so you could be wearing shorts and riding a skateboard through the corridors. But once the dot-com bust happened, things seemed to have just tightened right back up. I'm not speaking of the dot-coms themselves, but the rest of corporate America seems to have said, well, the hell with creativity.

Jill: A kind of "look where that got them."

Ehrenreich: Yes, right.

Jill: Many of the networking meetings you went to turned out to have religious undertones, though they weren't presented that way to you initially. Why do you think that these seem to be a spreading phenomenon? Because churches are already social institutions, and are primed for that sort of thing, or is it more of the conformity, making sure you share specific values?

Ehrenreich: I think it's great when churches, and temples, offer social services. They should be doing that. But these churches—sometimes it wasn't an actual church, but a Christian businessmen's group—are offering a service with a clear aim to proselytize. And what I saw was a political kind of message going with it. Homophobia was incredibly rampant in these meetings—just casually, you know. Joking. And anti-Semitism, which is not exactly political, it's just creepy. And other political comments. For example—this was at a time before the election—a comment about John Kerry, and why he was some sort of traitor, to not be as enthused about the war as George Bush is. So you're getting whatever service is being provided in a kind of context with all these messages. Although I didn't go to these things, of course, thinking they were going to be religious.

Jill: What about other, secular networking meetings? Is their New-Age-y, irrational side the flip side of that?

Ehrenreich: There is a connection, I finally realized. Because a lot of the secular exhortations you're getting are based on this idea that you can control the world with your thoughts and attitude. And I thought, how could that fit into a religious viewpoint? Right? I mean, if you were really the master of the universe, and some of these—there's a current bestseller that calls the universe a "giant mail-order business," and you beam in your thoughts, and then what you ordered comes back to you. Which would be great if it worked, you know. And I thought, how would God fit into this? Is he just there in the fulfillment department, wrapping packages? But it really boils down to the same fantasy of omnipotence on both sides, because at the religious meetings, they're also saying that you can have whatever you want, if your relationship with God is going well. If you've been saved, and you're in touch with the deity, then you will get your packages delivered to you.

Jill: I found it strange that almost every anecdote that anyone tells in Bait and Switch—career coaches, networking leaders, boot camp directors—is either really confusing or trails off without a clear point.

Ehrenreich: It was strange! It was certainly part of the through-the-looking-glass feeling of this whole experience for me. There was one Christian businessmen's luncheon (and it was men) that I attended, and the speaker—who I thought was going to talk about real estate, because he was introduced as a very successful realtor, goes into this long, strange story, about his wife having delirium tremens and her backyard hallucinations—and I have no idea what the point was! I read recently that Hunter Thompson once complained that the world wasn't weird enough for him. And I thought, Hunter, you should have come with me, and I could have shown you weird! Just go into the heartland of America, and its corporate business culture. It gets weird fast.

Jill: On that note, what was the most surreal thing that happened, during the course of the research for this book?

Ehrenreich: The most surreal... Hmm. Well, I'd have to count among the most surreal things this emphasis on personality. All coaches want you to take personality tests. Corporations administer personality tests all the time—and why? You know, I said I was a PR person. That was my cover, my supposed occupation, which I chose because it goes with journalism, and I felt that I could actually do everything that I was saying I could do. But suppose I take the test, and they tell me I've got the personality of an embalmer. What am I going to do with that? It's a little late.

These tests, I should say—and if anyone wants to complain, they can come to my website, www.barbaraehrenreich.com, and fight it out with me, but they've been completely discredited. There was a book, in fact, called The Cult of Personality Testing, by Annie Murphy Paul, which conveniently for me came out early last fall. And she does a completely wonderful job debunking them. So, during my first personality test, the Enneagram test, which is based on Sufism and ancient Celtic lore, I turned out to be "good." (Funny that you could be "good" on a personality test.) But I also turned out to be "melancholy" and "envious." My coach went through all these attributes, and these diagrams, and I just had no idea what he was doing. The bottom line, though, was that he said I should avoid occupations involving writing, because that wasn't something I could do. [Laughs]

I should also report that on the famous Myers-Briggs test—have you ever taken one?

Jill: I have, yes, a while ago. My type was similar to yours—I was an INTJ [Introverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judging].

Ehrenreich: I was an ENTJ. How I became an "E," I have no idea. I mean, I'm a writer, "E" is for extrovert, and I'm almost reclusive in my normal life. That's what I like, that's what I like to do. But I came out as this ENTJ, which a later career coach said, "That's wonderful! You are a commandant!" So yes, this is surreal, this is very strange, and yet the major corporations use these tests.

Jill: In the book, I think you report that something like 85% of them do.

Ehrenreich: Yes. And I do know, I can't say that I can prove this, but I suspect that what they use them for is to tell you what's wrong with you. If I had scored as an "I," I would have been urged to turn myself into an "E." Just as my first coach was saying, "You can't be a good writer, you'd better take some intensive journaling workshops." So they don't want your personality, they want to change it into the one personality that they want, which is extroverted, which is happy all the time, cheery all the time, and never has a negative or resentful thought.

Jill: How would you compare this to Nickel and Dimed, to doing the work and the research for that book?

Ehrenreich: The actual process, or my reaction to it?

Jill: Both.

Ehrenreich: The process was a little different. I was doing more conventional kinds of research here, too: reading everything I could about the corporate world and recent changes in it. I was also actually turning around at some points and interviewing people in my own name about their job histories, how they got laid off and what had happened to them. But as an experience, I liked Nickel and Dimed much better. It was punishingly hard work, but I liked the camaraderie, the other people I worked with, and there's more of a straightforwardness about the blue-collar world. You know, if you're hired to scrub floors, you scrub them. If you don't, you're fired. You get paid a tiny bit, and it seems straightforward. I just have the sense about the white-collar world that there's much more anxiety at work, and mind games at work, and manipulativeness, and this self-consciousness about whether you are projecting the wrong kind of attitude.

Jill: I think it was in Fear of Falling that you were describing the working class as often having the conception that those in the white-collar professions didn't actually do anything. At least, doing nothing but directing the work of those in the working class, but not physically producing anything.

Ehrenreich: And I grew up hearing that, as well. My dad was originally a copper miner, and even though he rose into corporate America, white-collar corporate America, I heard from him that there are people who are phonies. Who aren't really doing any work. He always singled out doctors, lawyers, and clergymen.

Jill: So what are some solutions, if there are any? How realistic is it that our corporate culture is going to change so that it's not so relentlessly blaming the victim for job loss?

Ehrenreich: Well, there are certainly a couple of things we could work on that would make it easier for people to survive layoffs. One would be universal health insurance. It is absolutely absurd to have health insurance tied to your job when your job is going to change as often as it does, today. The second thing would be a better safety net of unemployment compensation lasting more than six months, paying more than sixty percent of what you earned before, like other countries in the world, for example. As for corporations themselves—I'm a longtime critic of corporations, because I think they have a great deal of power over us, but we have no democratic access to their decision making. At all.

A simple thing that might be changed, it seems to me, is that the government should stop giving tax breaks and subsidies to corporations in the name of job creation when they're destroying jobs. They have to be held accountable. The American Jobs Creation Act of 2004—that's its name, Jobs Creation Act—granted some huge tax breaks. Hewlett-Packard is one of the beneficiaries; it's going to get around eight billion dollars as a tax break under this act, but it has announced, this last summer, that it's laid off 14,500 workers. So that's a point where a political leader with some backbone says, "No you don't. That's job destruction, not job creation." And they don't get the money. But nobody stands up to them right now.

Jill: With health insurance, do you think that within the last few years the outrage about lack of coverage and rising costs has built up to the point where we might actually see real change within the next ten years or so?

Ehrenreich: Yes, but I think people have to get very, very serious about it. I think it has to become a criterion for who you vote for. Not just are they for or against abortion or for or against the war, but let this be an issue on which they stand or fall. It has to be universal. I mean, this includes so many people. I'm a freelancer, and it's a serious issue for me, getting my own health insurance and continuing it. So it's not only the poor, though it certainly concerns the poor. But an upper-middle class family—if they lose a job, they can be finished, too. That's why a lot of middle-class white-collar people will go to work anywhere where they can get even the spottiest coverage of health insurance. They'll work blue-collar jobs, out of desperation, because if you don't have insurance, and someone in your family requires medical bills, doctors and hospitals aren't friendly creditors any more. They can come after everything.

I had a collection agency after me just a month ago, and it was the hospital clinic that had made the mistake. They had billed me twice, and then I've got the collection agency calling up. So you see how quickly that would become a black mark on my credit rating. And when you have a black mark on your credit rating, a lot of employers will not consider you. It's a catch-22. And there is of course the study from Harvard, which recently found that half of all bankruptcies are caused by medical bills.

Jill: And now, of course, it's much more difficult to go bankrupt at all.

Ehrenreich: Oh, I was just so outraged by that bankruptcy bill. I'm glad you brought that up. There was some pressure to waive it for the Katrina victims, but the Republicans in the Senate are saying, oh no, going right ahead with that bill the way it stands. So people with no jobs, no income coming in right now, because of that disaster, I'm sure the collection agencies will find them wherever they are, be it on a raft somewhere. They'll be found, and they'll have no way out now. For years we talked about the assault on the poor. But now it's an assault on the middle class too.

Jill: Re-reading Nickel and Dimed, I had forgotten how much rent you ended up paying to stay in these week-to-week places, where you weren't even feeling remotely physically safe. So I was considering the role of fear in both that book and Bait and Switch. Do you think that fear is isolating? Does that continual state of anxiety keep people from coming together to work for change?

Ehrenreich: I'd put it this way: coming together to work for change helps overcome fear. When you see that other people have the same problems, you feel that kind of strength that comes from mutual support. It surprises me that the insecure unemployed white-collar folks don't do more to get together on their own terms, without these weird manipulative people running the show. In fact, one thing I'm trying to do is to get people to get together. Last night in Seattle, when I was speaking, I asked the crowd, "How many people are in this situation?" Around half the hands went up. And then I said, "Who will help organize a Seattle group?" and one woman stood up and collected email addresses. I hope to make it easier for people to get together in one zone, in a community on my website, eventually, and have more resources for people there.

But it's not just because of the political advocacy that anxious and unemployed white-collar people could exert if they acted as a constituency, it's also because you feel so much better when you can connect with other people and see that it's not just you. That was the great discovery of the feminist movement, when I was there at the beginning. That you could sit down with other people you shared something with and say, "Oh my God, you too? You know, I guess I'm not crazy."

Jill: I was also reading Re-Making Love—did that come out in 1984?

Ehrenreich: 1986. Just as the AIDS epidemic broke out, we come out with our book about sex.

Jill: I had just reviewed The Handmaid's Tale a couple of months ago, and I noticed something similar in tone—while it will sound very strange to call The Handmaid's Tale hopeful—

Ehrenreich: It's a terrifying book.

Jill: It is terrifying. But there's a seriousness of tone and purpose in both those books that I don't notice in much feminist writing today. Perhaps I'm not reading the right people, but, say, Maureen Dowd, to name one example, is wonderful and spot-on, but she's very cynical. There's very little hope in the language.

Ehrenreich: Maureen Dowd is great, isn't she? Well, it's a hard and angry time for feminists. We see the assault on abortion rights, which is only gaining ground. I have to say I was quite distressed by that New York Times article today—a front-page article about women in Ivy League schools who were planning on motherhood as their career. They were saying, Well, I'll work for a few years but as soon as I have children, I will take ten years or so off. Saying, I can't be a mother and have a career at the same time. Which is what we were told when I was coming up, that you had to pick one or the other. And it's distressing not because I think these young women are "betraying the cause"—it's fine with me, as I've been a stay-at-home mom, too—but that nobody's pointing out that, in 1975, when we said we could do it all, the work part was an eight-hour a day job. And you could do it, if you got home at 5:30. You still had child-care issues, and all sorts of other things, getting your husband to help, etc., but today's average professional job is much more like ten or more hours a day. I don't even know when you shower, with that kind of schedule, much less have a real relationship with children, friends, lovers, spouses, anybody.

And I see that one of the reasons for the overwork is precisely this downsizing trend. As they strip away more and more people, you're left with people who then have to work far more than eight hours a day. That seemed so clear to me at some of these networking events I'd go to, where a lot of people would be there with jobs, but say they couldn't take the stress of their jobs any more. So they're these survivors of downsizing, and they're going nuts because of the demands on them. It makes no sense. We have women who don't feel they can have choices, we have people who are overworked and exhausted, and we have people who are desperate to work because they're unemployed.

Jill: I read that your next project was something involving the lack of ecstatic ritual in our society, which sounds absolutely fascinating to me.

Ehrenreich: Oh, it's wonderful. I can't wait to get back to it, but I don't want to say too much about it. If I get started, I won't be able to stop. But yes, this book is history. History, anthropology, it draws on different disciplines, but it is looking at something that is universal to humans, going back to the Paleolithic festivities and ecstatic rituals, which have been repressed or degraded in our society down to things like binge drinking as a pathetic residue of the excitement, say, of traditional Carnival in Europe, or something else. I've been working on this for years.

Jill: That sounds connected in some ways to the study of ritual in Blood Rites, which is one of your books I haven't yet read.

Ehrenreich: It is, it is. This new project grew out of Blood Rites, in a way. And I have to say, actually, that Blood Rites is my favorite book that I've written, so far.

Barbara Ehrenreich visited Powells.com on Tuesday, September 20th, before her reading that evening at the Bagdad Theater.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Blood Rites: Origins and History of... Used Trade Paper $10.00
  2. Re-Making Love: The Feminization of Sex Used Trade Paper $5.50
  3. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Bait and Switch: The (Futile)... Sale Hardcover $2.00

  5. The Cult of Personality Testing: How...
    Used Trade Paper $8.50
  6. Who Moved My Cheese?
    Used Hardcover $4.95
  7. Bait and Switch: The (Futile)... Sale Hardcover $2.00
  8. Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting...
    Used Trade Paper $6.95

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