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
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.
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.