White-collar Wasteland

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bait and Switch, is a subversive report from the front lines of disappointment

In her new book, Barbara Ehrenreich does for laid-off middle managers, financial planners, and systems analysts what she did for maids, waitresses, and Wal-Mart "associates" in her already-classic Nickel and Dimed (2001). Bait and Switch challenges the national faith in upward mobility as Nickel and Dimed should have shamed the national conscience—and might have if better-off Americans didn't count on the "philanthropy" of the working poor: the low prices they bestow on the rest of us through their willingness to work for so little.

From Atlantic Unbound:

"Working Classes" (May 2, 2001)
An exchange between James Fallows and Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Conservatives wont to tie the lot of the working poor to their choices should read Bait and Switch. In The New York Times David Brooks recently saw a silver lining in the New Orleans catastrophe: now that their old lives have been destroyed, the city's African-Americans can break the bad habits that made them poor. Jonathan Swift, where are you? Bad habits don't make people poor. Bad—or no—paychecks do. It isn't Brooke Astor's virtue that has stopped her from stealing a car. Anyway, the worst habit the "poor" have is resignation to injustice. Brooks would never link the condition of downwardly mobile middle-class Americans to "bad" habits, yet the same market forces that capsize them seal the poverty of the poor. Bait and Switch is a subversive book because it exposes a systemic wrong, the using-up and discarding of human beings; and a disturbing one because you could be among them.

To report from the front lines of disappointment, Ehrenreich used her maiden name, prepared a semi-true resumé, and emerged as "Barbara Anderson," a public-relations pro and "event planner." She set aside $5,000 in expense money, and gave herself a year to find a job in "corporate America." She assumed "this project" would be "a piece of cake"—physically easier than working as a maid or a waitress and emotionally safer. "I imagined I would be immune from the constant subservience and obedience demanded of low-wage blue collar workers, that I would be far freer to be, and express, myself," she writes. "As it turns out, I was wrong on all counts."

Her job search began with nomenclature. "Unemployment" happens to blue- and pink-collar workers. Jobless white-collar workers are "in transition." To land a "replacement job" they commonly turn to the "transition industry." So Barbara Anderson hired resume doctors and career-coaches, attended "boot camps" and inspirational workshops, submitted to "personality" tests and wardrobe critiques. Yet, although she was "admirably flexible, applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey's," she got only one job interview in ten months of trying, and that a frozen encounter with a clueless recruiter for Aflac. She could end her search; she had a book to fall back on. Eleven searchers-for-real she met along the way had no such option. After a year most of these former corporate managers and symbolic analysts had transitioned down to the kind of "survival jobs" Ehrenreich tried on in Nickel and Dimed.

Her passage through the transition industry is often funny; Ehrenreich is a writer before she's a liberal. For example, in job prospecting on Google she learns to "avoid the word JOB, which, unless carefully modified, will lead to numerous sites in which it is prefaced by HAND or BLOW." Incredibly, her "Enneagram," a personality test and job sorter, revealed that "I probably don't write very well." Over and over she's told, Do something about the "gap" in your resume left by your years out of the workforce. Why not stress the "management skills you developed while managing children?" "Yeah, right," she thinks. "Like I'm going to have resume entries like 'negotiated complex pre-teen transportation issues.'"

The transition gurus she seeks out and reads teach their clients to blame themselves for losing their jobs—and then offer one-on-one therapy to help them transcend guilt. The transition culture is "shot through with magical thinking." And with charlatans preying on frail hopes.

Betrayal forms the moral subtext of Bait and Switch. Given tax breaks to create jobs, corporations shed experienced workers like dandruff. "Middle class," a broken promise, appears destined to join "free labor" in the museum of capitalism's victims. Once breached, the social contract—work hard, play by the rules, and you will prosper in this free economy—cannot be re-negotiated; the trust is gone. If the pursuit of the American dream is indeed "futile," then "America" is in transition to another country.