Monday, October 24, 2005

Book Review: Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

I just finished reading Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich, her follow up to the excellent Nickel and Dimed, which I reviewed earlier this year.

Bait and Switch is similar in style to Nickel and Dimed. This time Ehrenreich undertakes to infiltrate corporate America. She wants to find out about people who "do everything right" according to societal standards - have college educations, work in white-collar positions, make good grades, etc. - but still end up unemployed, underemployed, and dangerously close to sinking into the poverty that Ehrenreich explored in Nickel and Dimed. So she sets aside ten months and $5000 for expenses and set her goal: search for a job for 4-6 months, and spend 3 months as an employee in a white-collar field, with some mid-range income goal. She would go anywhere, take any job offered that met her requirements and was not morally objectionable to her.

Ehrenreich's quest for a job is hilarious and frustrating. She spends a lot of money on job coaches, who give her personality tests (one has results that suggest Ehrenreich is "probably not a good writer"), help her re-write her resume with the proper 'lingo'. The coaches key into the job-searchers need to have a "winning attitude." One job-seekers website she comes across says, "studies have shown that the hiring process is 90% emotional . . . if I like you, I may hire you." (pg. 38)

After job coaches, the next key element of job-searching is networking - trying to make contacts for jobs with anyone and everyone you meet. Ehrenreich attends everything from church-sponsored networking events (Ehrenreich, an atheist, seems to have a strange hate-church-but-can't-stay-away-from-it relationship that I can't figure out. She does know her scriptures though!), to networking "boot camp," to select events that only job-hunters with real potential can attend.

It is during "boot camp" that Ehrenreich runs into a pervasive philosophy of job-seeking: "You must recognize that you alone are the source of all the conditions and situations in your life. You must recognize that whatever your world looks like right now, you alone have caused it to look that way." (pg. 81, as quoted from The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely everything You Want) In other words, getting laid off, the state of the economy, poverty, etc. - anything else that factors into your employment situation is nothing - you've caused it to be how it is and have to take responsibility for it. Ehrenreich writes, "It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers . . . it's not the word that needs changing . . . it's you." (pg. 85)

Another big issue Ehrenreich experiences: invisibility. Not even rejection, which would require a response from prospective employers, but invisibility - no response or acknowledgement from most of the hundreds of companies to which she applied. No return calls. No rejections letters. No human contact. (pg. 171)

In the end, Ehrenreich, despite coaching and networking and even an image makeover, is offered two jobs: one at an insurance company, where she basically would sell insurance and recruit other salespeople, and one selling Mary Kay. After seven months searching, those are her offers.

Her last two chapters, tying everything together and making conclusions, are her strongest. She follows up with many others she met job-seeking, and finds that most of them are still unemployed or underemployed, taking "survival jobs." The number of people working in "survival jobs" - jobs that are low-paying, that have nothing to do with one's education and skills - is not a figure that is measured in any way. The Bureau of Labor Stats only measures underemployment by those working less than full time hours.

Ehrenreich talks about that Protestant American work ethic that says "hard work will be rewarded with material comfort and security," at least for middle-class folk. It is this guarantee that is fading away, she argues. Capitalism, Marx observed, "never promised stability." (pg. 217) She also notes the lack of organizing by white-collar laborers, the lack of conversation about why so many of them are experiencing job loss and unemployment. The victim-blaming ideology seems to keep people from looking for larger, societal reasons for job loss, keeping them also from working for change.

Ehrenreich also briefly address corporate greed, talking about the rising incomes of CEOs, a habit of "internal predation" of eliminating jobs of those below you so that you can earn more. (I wish she would have expanded more in this area.)

I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed more than Bait and Switch, because I think good looks into the life of the working poor are few and far between. And it's harder to feel sorry for middle-class people with lots of resources. But at the same time, it's easier to see my own (and my family's) struggles in Bait and Switch. And Ehrenreich really tries to push the reminder - poverty, "downward mobility" isn't so far away from most of us. How many bad events would have to take place in your life to push you from middle-class to lower-class? How many unexpected things could you handle before you had to take up a job you never imagined yourself doing?

Give it a read!
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