Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the American Dream
My sister Emily, a stay-at-home mom, doesn’t have a lot of time to read. In fact, other than Goodnight, Moon and Pat the Bunny, she made it through just one book while her first child was nursing: Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich’s firsthand depiction of life in the minimum-wage workforce made such a big impression on her that she’s since become a compulsive tipper–last year, on a family vacation, she ran back to the room at the Holiday Inn to leave a ten spot on the dresser for the maid. It’s hard to imagine Ehrenreich’s latest moving her to similar gestures on behalf of the white-collar unemployed.
To research Nickel and Dimed Ehrenreich spent three months undercover in the service industry, with stints as a waitress, a cleaning person, and a Wal-Mart “associate.” Though her project was derided by some as a condescending stunt, I thought it achieved its goals admirably. While you could never quite forget that Ehrenreich was just playing at being poor, she married tales of her own frustrating experience with enough hard data to convey the day-to-day struggles of those who aren’t: the physical toll of manual labor, the petty humiliations of mandatory drug testing and servile rules of conduct. Her succinct, accessible analysis of the cycle of working-class poverty has kept the book on the New York Times best-seller list, and it’s been given new legs in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Ehrenreich’s new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, is a spin-off, and like Joanie Loves Chachi it’s a pretty feeble riff on the original. Ehrenreich’s goal this time around is to infiltrate the ranks of corporate America by posing as public relations professional Barbara Alexander (her maiden name). Armed with a resume loosely adapted from her real-life experience as a journalist and teacher–and a couple of friends willing to lie should they be called for references–Ehrenreich sets out to sell herself as a successful freelance consultant in search of the security of a company job. As she did in the first book, she sets certain parameters for herself: her plan was to pound the pavement for six months, availing herself of every resource she came across in her hunt, and take the first job offered that paid $50K with health insurance. She hoped to hold the job for three or four months before coming clean and returning to her life as Barbara Ehrenreich, social critic.
In late 2003, she points out, almost 20 percent of unemployed Americans were white-collar professionals, a sizable subset whose profile was raised even higher by the media attention paid to the plight of downsized middle managers turned Starbucks baristas and Gap sweater folders. “Something, evidently,” she writes, “is going seriously wrong within a socioeconomic group I had indeed neglected as too comfortable and too powerful to merit my concern. Where I had imagined comfort, there is now growing distress, and I was determined to investigate.”
But the book Ehrenreich envisioned never comes about. For one, she never manages to actually land a job. Instead she revises her mandate. Rather than being an expose of America’s fast-changing corporate culture, Bait and Switch becomes an exploration and indictment of the netherworld of corporate job hunting.
She gets a makeover, attends networking events in innumerable airless ballrooms, and reads Who Moved My Cheese? She signs on with not one but three career coaches, including the relentlessly perky Kimberly, for whom Ehrenreich develops a fierce, almost irrational antipathy. She attends an Atlanta boot camp for job hunters where she’s confounded by the leader’s Est-like philosophy of individual will and fondness for meaningless acronyms.
Throughout, Ehrenreich’s tone moves between bemusement and outright scorn. “Who are these people?” she asks herself at one point. She only rarely rouses herself to find out. Instead she relies on speculation–she describes one demoralized job seeker as having “an expression suggesting [he] is accustomed to having his utterances answered with slaps”–and catty comments about the corporate dress code, which doesn’t allow for the “flowing scarves, rumpled linen, and dangly earrings” she’s grown used to in academe. Her disdain is at its strongest when she plunges into the world of Christian networking–at one point she walks out of a meeting, her sensibilities have been so thoroughly offended. The booming evangelical business culture would actually have made a fascinating subject for a book, but Ehrenreich won’t stoop to taking Christians seriously. Nowhere does she pull her fellow job seekers aside and ask them what they’re thinking–whether putting their search for employment in Jesus’s hands is, you know, actually working out for them. In fact, it’s hard for Ehrenreich to muster empathy for almost anyone of any creed; the exceptions are an “effeminate” man she spies smiling thinly at a homophobic comment and a flamboyant young African-American temp she meets outside yet another hotel ballroom. We never hear from either of them again.
Ehrenreich would have done well to draw others into her research, because, issues of tone aside, her own project was doomed from the get-go. Her adopted identity is no phonier than that of Nickel and Dimed’s beleaguered “Barb,” but as she comes to begrudgingly acknowledge, it’s a lot harder to reinvent yourself as a PR person than as a waitress. She’s already at a disadvantage, being middle-aged and spottily credentialed, and she makes it even harder by operating in a vacuum. That Barbara Alexander has no well-placed cousin, no friend with an ear to the ground, no tips from a former colleague strains credulity.
In her introduction Ehrenreich identifies the subjects of her investigation as the unfortunate class of Americans who got degrees in business and finance and otherwise dotted all their i’s and crossed their t’s–“high achievers who ran into trouble precisely because they had risen far enough in the company for their salaries to look like a tempting cost cut.” But as far as I can tell, everyone in her adopted peer group is as lousy a candidate for employment as she is: if they’re not putting their faith in the power of Enneagrams and Myers-Briggs tests, they’re sad and numb, slumping their way through yet another grim networking mixer. It’s not surprising that Ehrenreich can’t get a job–nobody around her is getting one either. Even her career coaches are on the market.
Nickel and Dimed succeeded because Ehrenreich used her own admittedly skewed story to fuel a scorching analysis of class in America. Here, despite a conclusion exhorting unemployed white-collar workers to band together in solidarity and lobby for universal health care, among other things, you can’t shake the sense that what she’s really upset about is how tacky “these people” are. Lacking the starch of moral indignation, Ehrenreich drifts limply through her unconvincing job search, never giving us a reason to care about her plight, let alone that of the poor souls she meets along the way.
When: Fri 9/30, 7:30 PM
Where: Swedish American Museum, 5211 N. Clark
Price: $27 (includes one book)
Info: 773-769-9299 or womenandchildrenfirst.com
More: Reception, 6 PM Hopleaf, 5148 N. Clark. $65 includes book and reserved seating at reading.