Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich

237 pages
Metropolitan Books
$3.95 from Thriftbooks.com

Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed was a runaway hit when it landed in bookstores in 2001. The book, an investigation of the plight of the working poor, boosted her reputation and sparked new conversation about the economic shackles that hinder advancement among America's minimum wage workers, but it also prompted a backlash from one frustrated white collar worker:

"Try investigating people like me who didn't have babies in high school, who made good grades. . . who instead of getting promoted or paid fairly must regress to working for $7/hour, having their student loans in perpetual deferment, living at home with their parents, and generally exist in debt which they feel they may never get out of."
The writer's response was 2005's Bait and Switch. Using undercover tactics to examine the lives of unemployed and underemployed white collar mid-managers, Ehrenreich made her escape from the academic ivory tower, reverted to her maiden name, and slipped into the crowds as an out-of-work PR rep searching for employment in Atlanta, GA. She began where we all do: molding the details of her past into self-aggrandizing resume bullets, hitting up the electronic job boards, and taking on the world of opportunities with high self-esteem and high expectations for landing the dream job. The book tracks her arc of frustration, disappointment, and desperation, and illustrates a glimpse of sleazy entrepreneurs who prey on the unemployed: job coaches, exclusive networking circles, employee investment pyramids, and proselytizing church-run support groups.

It was a good idea to expand upon the success of Nickel and Dimed with a study of unemployed white-collar workers, but Ehrenreich's approach to job seeking is faulted from the beginning. People who've struggled to find employment--myself included--can nod in appreciation at the author's effort to draft and perfect a resume, the frustration in not receiving a response when employers decline an application, and the stress over bills, family, and future. But I felt Ehrenreich's hunt was riddled with tactical errors, and didn't reflect the approaches and challenges of the white collar unemployed. Instead of casting for a network of support, she entered the search as a consumer of job search support services: contracting expensive job coaches, flying across the country to attend seminars, and expending valuable time on support networks grounded in a mission of religious witnessing. Twenty minutes' worth of internet research would have eliminated these bodies from most job-seekers' circle of resources, and I wondered if this book were more of an expose of the sham "experts" and professional coaches who promise access to dream jobs. That reminds me: I'd like to give a shoutout to Jobfox. Thank you for your unsolicited criticism of my resume, and your $400 offer to rewrite it for me.

But back to the book. I was somewhat disappointed that Ehrenreich chose to make these parasites the focus of her book, and not the real challenges facing white collar workers. One reason Nickel and Dimed was so successful was because it exposed the reader audience to the very real problems of blue collar undercompensation, challenges in organizing and lack of benefits. The white collar unemployed face their own difficulties, but getting sucked into dopey job search support schemes isn't usually one of them. It was strange to me that the author made these schemes the focus of her book.

There were other very important points covered in this story. One that resonated most with me was Ehrenreich's comment on the strange, silent responses to most job inquiries--of pouring heart and soul into cover letters and hearing nothing. "The feeling is one of complete invisibility and futility: you pound on the door, you yell and scream, but the door remains sealed shut in your face," she writes. It's a feeling of exasperation that dogs her right up to the end of her 10 month search for employment. "I am overwhelmed by a sense of futility. If this were my real life and actual livelihood were at stake, I would be climbing the walls. But even in my artificial situation as a journalist-slash-job seeker, I cannot help feeling the rejection. All my life . . . I've found myself in one strange situation after another, and always managed to succeed or at least survive. Am I not plucky, resourceful, even a wee bit charismatic? The answer, coming in the form of nothing at all--no responses, no nibbles, no interest of any kind--apparently is not."

But herein Ehrenreich states the central problem of this book: her real life and livelihood did not actually depend on the outcome of her search. Ehrenreich didn't find herself socially alienated in the dead hours of the workday, isolated by poverty and stressed over dwindling funds, fretting that her lack of engagement and lack of pay kept her from moving on with her life. Desperation, depression and fear are critical elements missing from this account, and I think that's why any real assessment of the lifestyles of the unemployed needs to start with the narrative accounts of the chronically unemployed.

That said, Ehrenreich is still a very smart writer, expert at rendering details and encounters with sardonic wit and wry cynicism. Despite my problems with her approach to the subject matter, I still had a lot of fun with the book. And if you enjoyed Nickel and Dimed, you're likely to appreciate this one, at least for some of its mental imagery, if not for its thorough examination of the subject.

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