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Dead-End Job Search
By John Dicker

Bait and Switch

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Henry Holt, 256 pages, $23

All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job to the tune of 50k per year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join a little club called America, honey. In Bait and Switch, this veteran social critic uses the undercover approach of her bestselling Nickel and Dimed to explore life in the suites. The goal is simple: Land a corporate job, report from within.

While Nickel and Dimed detailed this author’s experiences scrubbing toilets, waiting tables and stocking Wal-Mart aisles, now she’s Googling, Monstering and disseminating her resume from home. She takes such measures as changing her name to her maiden Alexander, acquiring a separate checking account and a bogus resume. She also employs a dreamless team of job coaches who, in return for fees of $200 an hour, provide mostly useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resume-formatting advice and personality tests.

Sadly, after a year of job hunting, the best offers she gets are gigs pimping the respective fruits of AFLAC (quack!) and Mary Kay. Be- cause they’re both independent-contractor status, she decides to pass. Given this failure to deliver, Bait and Switch is not the up close and personal expose of corporate America you might imagine. Rather, it’s a politicized job seeker’s diary.

As part of her search, Ehrenreich ventures to executive boot camps and a host of networking events at exurban restaurants and a few evangelical churches. Sadly, she’s never in a position to observe other job seekers over the long term. What’s missing in “on the job” immediacy is sometimes made up for in analysis, like her distinction between blue- and white-collar job hunting. In the former, basic motor skills and a drug test can usually get you in the door. No one expects anyone to be passionate about the drive-thru window. Not so in the white- collar world, where employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that does little more than gnaw the soul.

The contradictions stack up like unpaid bills. On one hand is the onus on keeping a positive attitude and conforming to the corporate culture, while at the same time, according to job coaches and other enforcers of a decidedly utopian individualism, the search is also akin to a spiritual journey.

So, somewhere in the gaping chasm between obeisance and vision quest lies the path to employment. Needless to say, it seems like a recipe for schizophrenia. Of course, Ehrenreich has no love for this pabulum. She particularly detests the way victim blaming is dressed up and barked out as therapy by those who profiteer from the misfortune of others. Observing the author ripping these coaches and titans of the “transition industry” is one of Bait and Switch’s greatest pleasures.

For Ehrenreich, the increase in white-collar unemployment, the downsizing, the offshoring of previously “safe” jobs all adds up to a shattering of a social contract understood by generations of Americans. That is: Work hard, stay loyal to the company, and be rewarded with security. A generation ago, such employer monogamy was the norm. Today, with the exception of a few niches in the public sector, folks are impressed if you’ve stuck with the same job for five years.

The irony here is palpable, or at least it should be: Where dissident intellectuals once lamented the conformist oppression meted out and endured by incarnations of “the man in the gray flannel suit,” now, it seems they’d welcome his return home with a path of lotuses.

In her conclusion, Ehrenreich makes a rather bold assertion that the attitudes she ob served in her year of job hunting were indicative of those of the corporate world at large. But work and working are hardly analogous. In the same way college freshman quickly learn that no one cares about their SAT scores, once you’ve got an ID badge and a copy code, no one cares about the bullet points on your resume.

Ehrenreich confesses that if she’d actually had a career in PR, her job hunt would’ve been assisted by a Rolodex of contacts. This is no minor point, as professional contacts are far more valuable than any classified section. Finding work with a fictitious history surely made her experience a lot tougher.

“Undercover” journalism is often criticized by the trade’s purists. If you lie to get access, why should anyone believe the rest of your story? Let’s bypass this discussion and criticize it from another vantage point: In order to write with authority, one has to spend real time with people inside their institutions. Ehrenreich does not come close, and as a result, Bait and Switch is incomplete. It’s far from thoughtless or dry, just not the book it bills itself as. Covers and clichés notwithstanding, sometimes you can judge a book by its title.

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