After a long career of championing the underdog from the safe vantage point of left-wing journalism, Barbara Ehrenreich ventured to the front line of the class war. In 2001’s surprise bestseller Nickel and Dimed, she passed for a peon. Working waitress and Wal-Mart gigs for three months, she documented just how hard it was to get by.
For Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich changes collar color from blue to white: This time around, she infiltrates the seemingly cushy corporate world of mid-level office workers. America has always demonized its underclass, blaming their woes on poor personal choices (dropping out of school, teen pregnancy) rather than societal failure. What to make, then, of that growing segment of the bourgeoisie who’ve fallen on hard times? In 2003, when she started the book, they accounted for almost 20 percent of the unemployed population. “They are the ones who ‘did everything right,’ ” Ehrenreich notes. “They earned higher degrees, often setting aside their youthful passion for philosophy or music to suffer through dull practical majors like management or finance.” These workers played by the rules, but the game has unraveled.
Ehrenreich goes into deep-cover mode in search of a “good” mid-level white-collar position with health insurance. Posing as a PR consultant named Barbara Alexander (her maiden name), she sculpts real-life experience into a fake résumé. Maybe she thought of this book as a kind of air-conditioned breeze after the hard labor and humiliating subservience of Nickel and Dimed, but in fact she plunges into a whole new pit of degradation, an anonymous world of career coaches and networking meetings. Instead of an insider account of corporate America, this turns out to be a distressing depiction of an outsider futilely trying to claw her way into the Emerald City. Luckily, Ehrenreich leavens the grimness with wry descriptions of the many would-be gurus she meets en route, all of whom sap her wallet while urging her to “stay positive.” A career counselor named Morton barrages her with charts and pseudo-scientific concepts like “three centers of intelligence,” illustrating it with characters from The Wizard of Oz. After giving her a personality test, he unwittingly declares that the award-winning author “probably [doesn’t] write very well.”
The book is liveliest when Ehrenreich unleashes her bitchiness and skepticism on these “transition” consultants. But all too often she holds herself in check; maybe all that advice about the power of positivity got to her. Just as some believe the poor have themselves to blame, the career gurus link employment status to personal attitude. One self-help book urges readers to vibrate happy thoughts, leading Ehrenreich to wonder whether the downsized office workers caused “the layoffs that drove them out of their jobs by ‘vibrating’ at a layoff-related frequency.” If the problem is you, rather than the economy or corporate policy, there’s no need “to band together to work for a saner economy or a more human-friendly corporate environment, or to band together at all.” The need for labor to organize at the point of production is the inevitable core of Ehrenreich’s argument: sensible, of course, but also so obvious you can guess the denouement before you crack the book’s spine.
Bait and Switch retreads lefty critiques of corporate America à la Richard Sennett and Tom Frank. And many of Ehrenreich’s revelations will be evident to anyone who’s ever searched for a job—the danger of chronological gaps in your résumé, for instance, or the importance of networking. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich has saddled herself with a handicap that gives the whole project a fatal whiff of artificiality. Since she can’t use any of her high-powered media connections, she’s effectively searching for an executive position with fewer contacts than a college grad. She gets a nibble of interest from a military contractor involved in the Abu Ghraib scandal but can’t bear to pursue it. (“My professional flexibility does not extend to defending torture allegations.”) In the end, her only job offer is a nebulous sales position with no health insurance and an initial investment of $1,900—the kind of work that many take to stay afloat while still hoping to get a “real” position somewhere down the line.
The real pleasure of the book is its intimate depiction of the “transition” industry. Ehrenreich crams her days with job-hunting seminars at down-market motels and mall restaurants where she astutely diagnoses the underlying intention as “pain management and structured grieving.” She saves her most acid commentary for Christian networking groups, where washed-up workers testify to the control-freakish Almighty’s role in their careers. The Lord “is always busily micromanaging every career and personal move: advising which jobs to pursue, even causing important emails to be sent.” From the résumé-and-a-prayer God squad to the secular evangelicals of wish-projection, the transition industry operates as an ideological Band-Aid dispenser on the killing fields of corporate capitalism. These meetings of the luckless are anti-unions: Instead of “educate, agitate and organize,” their undeclared manifesto is mystify, enervate, and atomize. “Anger is an energy,” Johnny Rotten once sang, but in the job-seeking subculture, expressions of discontent are verboten, since bitter workers aren’t attractive to employers. So suppress those grievances, mask that disenchantment, and hope Capital takes pity on you.