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Saturday, December 3, 2011


Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich. NY: Metropolitan Books (Henry Holt & Co.), 2005

I love pretty much anything Barbara Ehrenreich writes. I love the way she picks up some bit of modern “wisdom” and, instead of just smiling and nodding and passing it on, holds it up for a long, close, questioning look. For instance, do people really (as many say) create their lives, in every aspect and every event, from nothing more than their own positive or negative thinking? Is reality that insubstantial? And how is this belief working for those who buy into it?

She’s funny, too. The humor helps when the subject matter is as depressing as some of hers is, such as the survival challenges of people on unskilled, minimum-wage jobs (Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America) or the insults-added-to-injury when a person with cancer is made to feel that she’s sick because she has a bad attitude (Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America).

As she did in those two books, for Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream the author researched a world joining it. Well, actually, she set out to join the corporate world, pulling together a plausible cover identity and job history based on (though not strictly representing) her own, expecting that she would go through the regular search channels, land a halfway decent job, stay with it long enough to fulfill her self-assigned timeline, and then resign and return home to write her book in her jammies (or gym clothes), but the plan didn’t quite work out that way. The world of white-collar unemployment was a much sadder, bleaker, pointless place than she had ever imagined.

There were the coaches, for one thing. Unemployed or underemployed themselves, operating out of coffee houses or (less often) small, drab, cramped offices, the coaches offered individual sessions that seemed designed to go on as long as a client’s money might last. The resume was never quite ready to send out, the attitude just not yet peppy enough. Since Ehrenreich was entering the job market as a research project, she tried three different coaches, one of whom she felt should hire her to improve his image (he didn’t, despite her confident self-sales pitch) and another she couldn’t help outright hating.
“I want you to design me as your best coach,” she says, perhaps forgetting that she has already been not only designed but “branded.” If I were “designing” her, I’d throw in a major serotonin antagonist to damp down the perkiness.... The session has left me drained and her more excited than ever....
That was the coach who thought Barbara would need three months of “co-active” work, for a total of $1,200.

Then there were the networking events, billed as opportunities to “get out there,” meet people, and hand out business cards. Unfortunately, the only people Ehrenreich met at the events were other job-hunters, and they had no interest in getting to know her or each other.
No matter how crowded the room, the networker prowls alone, scavenging to meet his or her individual needs.
Why go if nothing ever results? Networking seems to be a way for the unemployed, or people “in transition,” as they are called in the lingo of the corporate job search world, to “keep busy,” to give themselves the illusion that they are “doing something.” Coaching and networking constitute the “transition industry,” a social-economic phenomenon that, Ehrenreich ultimately concludes, “narrows the range of the thinkable and forecloses the possibility of collective action.”

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There I have given you one of the conclusions of the book, but it was at the beginning, way back in the first chapter, “Finding a Coach in the Land of Oz,” that I began to laugh out loud. Hate me if you will for this, but I was delighted beyond measure when the author skewered the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram tests, “variously said to be derived from Sufism, Buddhism, Jesuit philosophy, and Celtic lore—with a generous undergirding of numerology.” These tests, routinely given to job seekers and applicants, focus on personality rather than experience and skills, a fact which raised a red flag right away for our skeptical social researcher. The “types” assigned by the test have not been found to have any validity or reliability.
So why is the corporate world [she asks], which we think of as so fixated on empirical, in fact, quantifiable, measures of achievement like the “bottom line,” so attached to these meaningless personality tests? One attraction must be that the tests lend a superficial rationality to the matching of people with jobs. No one, after all, wants a sadistic personnel director or a morbidly shy publicist; and if you failed at one job, it is probably comforting to be told that it was simply not a good “fit” for your inner nature.
Back on the personality packaging redesign board, the author went for an image makeover, acknowledging that dressing for success is not one of her strongest suits.
Mainly, as a writer, I have no need to dress for work in anything other than gym clothes, or no clothes at all for that matter, and when writers do try to “dress up,” they are generally granted a lot of leeway. I remember attending a banquet with the poet and short-story writer Grace Paley, who appeared in a loose pink floral dress. When I complimented her, she confessed it was a nightgown, which was obvious on closer inspection.
She does not spare herself, either. (I love this part!) When her wardrobe and makeup consultant tells her she must never wear black or grey because they wash out her skin, we can almost her shock.
This pretty much condemns me to nudity, since my entire wardrobe is black and grey, and not because I’m striving for New York City-style coolness, circa 1995. The truth is I spill on everything, so no peach or yellow item has ever survived more than two or three wearings.
Leaving no stone unturned, however, our intrepid author-researcher-corporate-jobseeker went to coaching “boot camp” and church-sponsored “networking” sessions, rewrote her resume countless times and finally, in resignation, lowered her career sights--all to no avail. Resumes sent out brought no replies. Job fairs brought no interviews. E-mail queries went unanswered. The only “jobs” she was ever offered were not corporate positions but commission-only sales “opportunities,” one selling insurance, the other selling cosmetics. In the end, 
...after almost seven months of job searching, an image makeover, an expensively refined and later upgraded resume, and networking in four cities, I have gotten exactly two offers: from AFLAC and Mary Kay.... 
No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me.
Because that’s what a hiring employer does, she notes, and that’s what makes it a real job.
...Surely there are plenty of actual sales jobs offering a salary and benefits in addition to commissions, but a real job involves some risk-taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment in order to acquire your labor. In real estate, franchising, and commission-only sales, the only risk undertaken is by the job seeker, who has to put out money up front and commit days or weeks to unpaid training.
Did she really try? I don’t blame anyone who asks, and the author answers the question in detail. The truth is, remember, that she did find and hold jobs in her earlier research project, doing hard work as a waitress and as a hotel maid. It isn’t as if she is lazy or thought the corporate world not glamorous enough for her. Maybe it was her age. Maybe it was the “stink of academia” in her resume or the lack of corporate references. But she had a lot of company from people with corporate credentials and experience, and they weren’t getting interviews, either. Downsized, right-sized and outsourced, the corporate world doesn't need them and doesn't want them. Experience is not an asset but a handicap. Youth, "passion" and the willingness to work weekends and pull overnighters rather than having a life--these may get you on the fast track, but even then you'd better keep watching over your shoulder while you're running as fast as you can.

An older corporate imperative, she says, used to be generating jobs, but since the 1990s a different trend has become clear: “CEOs who laid off large numbers of employees were paid better than those who didn’t.”
Put in blunt biological terms, the corporation has become a site for internal predation, where one person can advance by eliminating another one’s job.
The unemployed former-corporate job seekers, Ehrenreich notes at the end of her book, have plenty of time to spare. They “drift through their shadowy world of Internet job searches, lonely networking events, and costly coaching sessions” but could be doing much more, namely lobbying for social change. They have the time and need only to move “from solitary desperation to collective action.”

Hmmm. I wonder. This book came out in 2005. Then the bubble burst. Now we have the Occupy Wall Street movement. Is the political force Ehrenreich envisioned for the beleaguered middle class beginning to take shape?

There were many more hilarious bits in this book, and I have hardly done justice, either, to the author's penetrating eye. This is one principled, thorough, hard-working human being I'd love to have for a friend. Actually, she reminds me very much of a dear friend of mine. I picture the naked emperor parading down the thoroughfare to the cheers of the crowd, while both Barbaras stand back watching from afar, shaking their heads and saying, "I don't think so!" It's a cold world out there, but I'm cheered by the existence of Barbaras in it.


Gerry said...

I know these people. All of us. The ghosts, the coaches, the corporate predators and the corporate employers. And the writers, of course.

These are hard times in odd ways. We are all of us losing touch with reality. But we are, bygod, relentlessly upbeat, hearty and optimistic.

And falling off the edges.

Dawn said...

Sounds like something I could read, now that I'm working...but might be too depressing to read if I were still looking. I know how hopeless it feels to be unemployed and over 50.

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, Gerry and Dawn. Are we "relentlessly upbeat," etc.? I guess I wouldn't be part of that "we." Am better than when younger at being happy, but.... What seems important to me is to maintain hope without having too many expectations, if that makes sense.

Dawn, I'm glad you're no longer looking for a job. Ehrenreich's experience brought it home clearly to her that the life she lives as a writer is no longer, if it ever was, a job she chooses as an alternative to a corporate career. The corporate world didn't want her. I was reminded of how rejected I felt when the brother of one of my coworkers--he was an Army recruiter--told me I was too old to join the Army. I didn't want to, anyway, but I wanted to think it was up to me to decide. It wasn't. They didn't want me.

Oh, well. And so I am a bookseller! For now, anyway. The future is, was always and shall ever be uncertain.