Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

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Overview

The New York Times bestselling investigation into white-collar unemployment from "our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism"--The New York Times Book Review

Americans' working lives are growing more precarious every day. Corporations slash employees by the thousands, and the benefits and pensions once guaranteed by "middle-class" jobs are a thing of the past.

In Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich goes back undercover to explore ...

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Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

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Overview

The New York Times bestselling investigation into white-collar unemployment from "our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism"--The New York Times Book Review

Americans' working lives are growing more precarious every day. Corporations slash employees by the thousands, and the benefits and pensions once guaranteed by "middle-class" jobs are a thing of the past.

In Bait and Switch, Barbara Ehrenreich goes back undercover to explore another hidden realm of the economy: the shadowy world of the white-collar unemployed. Armed with the plausible résumé of a professional "in transition," she attempts to land a "middle-class" job. She submits to career coaching, personality testing, and EST-like boot camps, and attends job fairs, networking events, and evangelical job-search ministries. She is proselytized, scammed, lectured, and--again and again--rejected.

Bait and Switch highlights the people who have done everything right--gotten college degrees, developed marketable skills, and built up impressive résumés--yet have become repeatedly vulnerable to financial disaster. There are few social supports for these newly disposable workers, Ehrenreich discovers, and little security even for those who have jobs. Worst of all, there is no honest reckoning with the inevitable consequences of the harsh new economy; rather, the jobless are persuaded that they have only themselves to blame.

Alternately hilarious and tragic, Bait and Switch, like the classic Nickel and Dimed, is a searing exposé of the cruel new reality in which we all now live.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich went inside the lives of "the working poor," low-wage workers who struggle to make ends meet. In Bait and Switch, she assumes a new identity in another hidden realm of our economy: the shadowy world of the white-collar unemployed. These displaced people had done everything right -- earned college degrees, developed marketable skills, built up impressive resumes -- yet remained totally vulnerable to "downsizing." To experience their plight, Ehrenreich readopted her maiden name, constructed a plausible job history, and assumed her place on a treadmill of career boot camps, job fairs, networking events, personality tests, and career coaching. A first-person look at what happens when job-hunting becomes a full-time job.
The New Yorker
Several years ago, Ehrenreich, a veteran muckraker, went to work in a variety of low-paying jobs to expose the harsh plight of the working poor; the resulting book, “Nickel and Dimed,” was an effective diatribe against the erosion of minimum wages and social safety nets. Here she goes incognito, under the cover of her maiden name (Alexander) and a lacklustre résumé, to find a white-collar job, preferably one with a title, benefits, and a minimum salary of fifty thousand a year. The idea was to worm into corporate America and expose the panicky insecurity of mid-level professionals in the downsized, outsourced New Economy. But, even after seemingly endless bouts of career-coaching sessions, networking events, and makeovers, the best offer “Barbara Alexander” gets is for a commission-only gig selling AFLAC medical insurance. It’s hard to tell whether the flaw lies in American capitalism or in the invention of Barbara Alexander.
Marcellus Andrews
Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch is a worthy companion to Nickel and Dimed, her engaging and infuriating 2001 exposé of the hard lives of working-class Americans. The new book provides a victim's-eye view of the world of unemployed white-collar workers -- people struggling, mostly in vain, to recoup the high wages and prestige they lost after being dismissed from the not-so-secure confines of corporate America.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
A wild bestseller in the field of poverty writing, Ehrenreich's 2001 expos of working-class hardship, Nickel and Dimed, sold over a million copies in hardcover and paper. If even half that number of people buy this follow-up, which purports "to do for America's ailing middle class what [Nickel and Dimed] did for the working poor," it too will shoot up the bestseller lists. But PW suspects that many of those buyers will be disappointed. Ehrenreich can't deliver the promised story because she never managed to get employed in the "midlevel corporate world" she wanted to analyze. Instead, the book mixes detailed descriptions of her job search with indignant asides about the "relentlessly cheerful" attitude favored by white-collar managers. The tone throughout is classic Ehrenreich: passionate, sarcastic, self-righteous and funny. Everywhere she goes she plots a revolution. A swift read, the book does contain many trenchant observations about the parasitic "transition industry," which aims to separate the recently fired from their few remaining dollars. And her chapter on faith-based networking is revelatory and disturbing. But Ehrenreich's central story fails to generate much sympathy-is it really so terrible that a dabbling journalist can't fake her way into an industry where she has no previous experience?-and the profiles of her fellow searchers are too insubstantial to fill the gap. Ehrenreich rightly points out how corporate culture's focus on "the power of the individual will" deters its employees from organizing against the market trends that are disenfranchising them, but her presentation of such arguments would have been a lot more convincing if she could have spent some time in a cubicle herself. (Sept.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Three years ago, journalist and social critic Ehrenreich wrote the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, exposing the dead-end world of the low-wage worker in America. Here, she tackles the problems of unemployed white-collar workers. Again, she goes undercover, this time pretending to be a white-collar worker seeking a public relations job. Her methodical job hunt includes sessions with personal coaches who use psychobabble, New Age concepts, or born-again Christianity to motivate their clients; personality tests, high-intensity "boot camp" sessions that focus on taking responsibility for one's job predicament and proactively networking; and sterile job fairs. She meets long-term unemployed white-collar workers as well as job seekers deeply dissatisfied with their current job or career. Her tale is instructive, sometimes humorous, but less involving than Nickel and Dimed because the focus is on finding a job rather than actually working in one; she ends up exposing the emptiness and disingenuousness of those she consulted more than analyzing the challenges confronting her fellow job seekers. Despite her many efforts, after almost a year of job hunting, the author doesn't get a viable job. She concludes without bitterness but without much hope that what "the unemployed and anxiously employed" need is "not a winning attitude" but "courage to come together and work for change." For all academic and most public libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 5/1/05.]-Jack Forman, San Diego Mesa Coll. Lib. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The middle class, writes Ehrenreich, is losing ground as steadily as the poor-and it has even more parasites feasting on its wounds. Poised, well-educated, but of a certain age and without a classic career trajectory, Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed, 2001) changes her name back to her natal Barbara Alexander, takes a new social security number and tries to get a job in the corporate world. Poor thing, she sets her sights high, hoping for something with a nice health plan and "an income of about $50,000 a year, enough to land me solidly in the middle class." Phase 1, deliciously detailed here, encompasses Ehrenreich/Alexander's meetings with a succession of bullshit artists who attempt to soak as much of her money as they can while fixing the commas on her resume, helping her concoct lies about her working past and indoctrinating her in New Age nonsense that hardnosed corporate America seems to have swallowed whole. Phase 2 involves dreadful meet-and-greet networking rituals, many of them gateways to fundamentalist Christianity, another species of false hope to fuel the unemployed and underemployed. "The white-collar workforce," writes Ehrenreich, "seems to consist of two groups: those who can't find work at all and those who are employed in jobs where they work much more than they want to. In between lies a scary place where you dedicate long hours to a job that you sense is about to eject you, if only because so many colleagues have been laid off already." After months of looking and landing only pyramid-scheme offers in return, she concludes that the corporate world has sent her and her kind a clear message-anyone with a brain need not apply, and past success does not matter. What doesis obedience, and the sure knowledge that one can be sacrificed at any moment. Another unsettling message about an ugly America from a trustworthy herald. Read it and weep-especially if you're a job-seeker.
From the Publisher
Praise for Nickel and Dimed:

“We have Barbara Ehrenreich to thank for bringing us the news of America’s working poor so clearly and directly, and conveying with it a deep moral outrage . . . She is our premier reporter of the underside of capitalism.”

—The New York Times Book Review

“Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable.” —Newsweek

“Courageous . . . a superb and frightening look into the lives of hard-working Americans.”

—San Francisco Chronicle

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641786570
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/6/2005
  • Pages: 256
  • Product dimensions: 5.85 (w) x 8.75 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich is the bestselling author of Nickel and Dimed, Bright-sided, This Land Is Their Land, Dancing in the Streets and Blood Rites, among others. A frequent contributor to Harper's and The Nation, she has also been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine. She is the winner of the L.A. Times Book Prize for Current Interest and ALA Notable Books for Nonfiction.

Ehrenreich was born in Butte, Montana, when it was still a bustling mining town. She studied physics at Reed College, and earned a Ph.D. in cell biology from Rockefeller University. Rather than going into laboratory work, she got involved in activism, and soon devoted herself to writing her innovative journalism. She lives and works in Florida.

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Read an Excerpt

Bait and Switch

The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
By Ehrenreich, Barbara

Owl Books

Copyright © 2006 Ehrenreich, Barbara
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0805081240

Introduction

Because I've written a lot about poverty, I'm used to hearing from people in scary circumstances. An eviction notice has arrived. A child has been diagnosed with a serious illness and the health insurance has run out. The car has broken down and there's no way to get to work. These are the routine emergencies that plague the chronically poor. But it struck me, starting in about 2002, that many such tales of hardship were coming from people who were once members in good standing of the middle class--college graduates and former occupants of midlevel white-collar positions. One such writer upbraided me for what she saw as my neglect of hardworking, virtuous people like herself.

Try investigating people like me who didn't have babies in high school, who made good grades, who work hard and don't kiss a lot of ass and instead of getting promoted or paid fairly must regress to working for $7/hr., 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.

Stories of white-collar downward mobility cannot be brushed off as easily as accounts of blue-collar economic woes, which thehard-hearted traditionally blame on "bad choices": failing to get a college degree, for example, failing to postpone childbearing until acquiring a nest egg, or failing to choose affluent parents in the first place. But distressed white-collar people cannot be accused of fecklessness of any kind; they are the ones who "did everything right." They earned higher degrees, often setting aside their youthful passion for philosophy or music to suffer through dull practical majors like management or finance. In some cases, they were 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. They were the losers, in other words, in a classic game of bait and switch. And while blue-collar poverty has become numbingly routine, white-collar unemployment--and the poverty that often results--remains a rude finger in the face of the American dream.

I realized that I knew very little about the mid- to upper levels of the corporate world, having so far encountered this world almost entirely through its low-wage, entry-level representatives. I was one of them--a server in a national chain restaurant, a cleaning person, and a Wal-Mart "associate"--in the course of researching an earlier book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Like everyone else, I've also encountered the corporate world as a consumer, dealing with people quite far down in the occupational hierarchy--retail clerks, customer service representatives, telemarketers. Of the levels where decisions are made--where the vice presidents, account executives, and regional managers dwell--my experience has been limited to seeing these sorts of people on airplanes, where they study books on "leadership," fiddle with spreadsheets on their laptops, or fall asleep over biographies of the founding fathers.1 I'm better acquainted with the corporate functionaries of the future, many of whom I've met on my visits to college campuses, where "business" remains the most popular major, if only because it is believed to be the safest and most lucrative.2

But there have been growing signs of trouble--if not outright misery--within the white-collar corporate workforce. First, starting with the economic downturn of 2001, there has been a rise in unemployment among highly credentialed and experienced people. In late 2003, when I started this project, unemployment was running at about 5.9 percent, but in contrast to earlier economic downturns, a sizable portion--almost 20 percent, or about 1.6 million--of the unemployed were white-collar professionals.3 Previous downturns had disproportionately hit blue-collar people; this time it was the relative elite of professional, technical, and managerial employees who were being singled out for media sympathy. In April 2003, for example, the New York Times Magazine offered a much-discussed cover story about a former $300,000-a-year computer industry executive reduced, after two years of unemployment, to working as a sales associate at the Gap.4 Throughout the first four years of the 2000s, there were similar stories of the mighty or the mere midlevel brought low, ejected from their office suites and forced to serve behind the counter at Starbucks.

Today, white-collar job insecurity is no longer a function of the business cycle--rising as the stock market falls and declining again when the numbers improve.5 Nor is it confined to a few volatile sectors like telecommunications or technology, or a few regions of the country like the rust belt or Silicon Valley. The economy may be looking up, the company may be raking in cash, and still the layoffs continue, like a perverse form of natural selection, weeding out the talented and successful as well as the mediocre. Since the midnineties, this perpetual winnowing process has been institutionalized under various euphemisms such as "downsizing," "right-sizing," "smart-sizing," "restructuring," and "de-layering"--to which we can now add the outsourcing of white-collar functions to cheaper labor markets overseas.

In the metaphor of the best-selling business book of the first few years of the twenty-first century, the "cheese"--meaning a stable, rewarding, job--has indeed been moved. A 2004 survey of executives found 95 percent expecting to move on, voluntarily or otherwise, from their current jobs, and 68 percent concerned about unexpected firings and layoffs.6 You don't, in other words, have to lose a job to feel the anxiety and despair of the unemployed.

A second sign of trouble could be called "overemployment." I knew, from my reading, that mid- and high-level corporate executives and professionals today often face the same punishing demands on their time as low-paid wage earners who must work two jobs in order to make ends meet. Economist Juliet Schor, who wrote The Overworked American, and business journalist Jill Andresky Fraser, author of White Collar Sweatshop, describe stressed-out white-collar employees who put in ten- to twelve-hour-long days at the office, continue to work on their laptops in the evening at home, and remain tethered to the office by cell phone even on vacations and holidays. "On Wall Street, for example," Fraser reports, "it is common for a supervisor to instruct new hires to keep a spare set of clothes and toothbrush in the office for all those late night episodes when it just won't make sense to head home for a quick snooze."7 She quotes an Intel employee:

If you make the choice to have a home life, you will be ranked and rated at the bottom. I was willing to work the endless hours, come in on weekends, travel to the ends of the earth. I had no hobbies, no outside interests. If I wasn't involved with the company, I wasn't anything.8

Something, evidently, 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 determined to investigate. I chose the same strategy I had employed in Nickel and Dimed: to enter this new world myself, as an undercover reporter, and see what I could learn about the problems firsthand. Were people being driven out of their corporate jobs? What did it take to find a new one? And, if things were as bad as some reports suggested, why was there so little protest?

The plan was straightforward enough: to find a job, a "good" job, which I defined minimally as a white-collar position that would provide health insurance and an income of about $50,000 a year, enough to land me solidly in the middle class. The job itself would give me a rare firsthand glimpse into the midlevel corporate world, and the effort to find it would of course place me among the most hard-pressed white-collar corporate workers--the ones who don't have jobs.

Since I wanted to do this as anonymously as possible, certain areas of endeavor had to be excluded, such as higher education, publishing (magazines, newspapers, and books), and nonprofit liberal organizations. In any of these, I would have run the risk of being recognized and perhaps treated differently--more favorably, one hopes--than the average job seeker. But these restrictions did not significantly narrow the field, since of course most white-collar professionals work in other sectors of the for-profit, corporate world--from banking to business services, pharmaceuticals to finance.

The decision to enter corporate life--and an unfamiliar sector of it, at that--required that I abandon, or at least set aside, deeply embedded attitudes and views, including my long-standing critique of American corporations and the people who lead them. I had cut my teeth, as a fledgling investigative journalist in the seventies, on the corporations that were coming to dominate the health-care system: pharmaceutical companies, hospital chains, insurance companies. Then, sometime in the eighties, I shifted my attention to the treatment of blue- and pink-collar employees, blaming America's intractable level of poverty--12.5 percent by the federal government's official count, 25 percent by more up-to-date measures--on the chronically low wages offered to nonprofessional workers. In the last few years, I seized on the wave of financial scandals--from Enron through, at the time of this writing, HealthSouth and Hollingers International--as evidence of growing corruption within the corporate world, a pattern of internal looting without regard for employees, consumers, or even, in some cases, stockholders.

But for the purposes of this project, these criticisms and reservations had to be set aside or shoved as far back in my mind as possible. Like it or not, the corporation is the dominant unit of the global economy and the form of enterprise that our lives depend on in a day-to-day sense. I write this on an IBM laptop while sipping Lipton tea and wearing clothes from the Gap--all major firms or elements thereof. It's corporations that make the planes run (though not necessarily on time), bring us (and increasingly grow) our food, and generally "make it happen." I'd been on the outside of the corporate world, often complaining bitterly, and now I wanted in.


This would not, I knew, be an altogether fair test of the job market, if only because I had some built-in disadvantages as a job seeker. For one thing, I am well into middle age, and since age discrimination is a recognized problem in the corporate world even at the tender age of forty, I was certainly vulnerable to it myself. This defect, however, is by no means unique to me. Many people--from displaced homemakers to downsized executives--now find themselves searching for jobs at an age that was once associated with a restful retirement.

Furthermore, I had the disadvantage of never having held a white-collar job with a corporation. My one professional-level office job, which lasted for about seven months, was in the public sector, at the New York City Bureau of the Budget. It had involved such typical white-collar activities as attending meetings, digesting reports, and writing memos; but that was a long time ago, before cell phones, PowerPoint, and e-mail. In the corporate world I now sought to enter, everything would be new to me: the standards of performance, the methods of evaluation, the lines and even the modes of communication. But I'm a quick study, as you have to be in journalism, and counted on this to get me by.

The first step was to acquire a new identity and personal history to go with it, meaning, in this case, a résumé. It is easier to change your identity than you might think. Go to Alavarado and Seventh Street in Los Angeles, for example, and you will be approached by men whispering, "ID, ID." I, however, took the legal route, because I wanted my documents to be entirely in order when the job offers started coming in. My fear, perhaps exaggerated, was that my current name might be recognized, or would at least turn up an embarrassing abundance of Google entries. So in November 2003 I legally changed back to my maiden name, Barbara Alexander, and acquired a Social Security card to go with it.

As for the résumé: although it had to be faked, I wanted it as much as possible to represent my actual skills, which, I firmly believed, would enrich whatever company I went to work for. I am a writer--author of thousands of published articles and about twelve nonfiction books, counting the coauthored ones--and I know that "writing" translates, in the corporate world, into public relations or "communications" generally. Many journalism schools teach PR too, which may be fitting, since PR is really journalism's evil twin. Whereas a journalist seeks the truth, a PR person may be called upon to disguise it or even to advance an untruth. If your employer, a pharmaceutical company, claims its new drug cures both cancer and erectile dysfunction, your job is to promote it, not to investigate the grounds for these claims.

I could do this, on a temporary basis anyway, and have even done many of the things PR people routinely do: I've written press releases, pitched stories to editors and reporters, prepared press packets, and helped arrange press conferences. As an author, I have also worked closely with my publisher's PR people and have always found them to be intelligent and in every way congenial.

I have also been an activist in a variety of causes over the years, and this experience too must translate into something valuable to any firm willing to hire me. I have planned meetings and chaired them; I have worked in dozens of diverse groups and often played a leadership role in them; I am at ease as a public speaker, whether giving a lengthy speech or a brief presentation on a panel--all of which amounts to the "leadership" skills that should be an asset to any company. At the very least, I could claim to be an "event planner," capable of dividing gatherings into plenaries and break-out sessions, arranging the press coverage, and planning the follow-up events.

Even as a rough draft, the résumé took days of preparation. I had to line up people willing to lie for me, should they be called by a potential employer, and attest to the fine work I had done for them. Fortunately, I have friends who were willing to do this, some of them located at recognizable companies. Although I did not dare claim actual employment at these firms, since a call to their Human Resources departments would immediately expose the lie, I felt I could safely pretend to have "consulted" to them over the years. Suffice it to say that I gave Barbara Alexander an exemplary history in public relations, sometimes with a little event planning thrown in, and that the dissimulation involved in crafting my new résumé was further preparation for any morally challenging projects I should be called upon to undertake as a PR person.

I did not, however, embellish my new identity with an affect or mannerisms different from my own. I am not an actor and would not have been able to do this even if I had wanted to. "Barbara Alexander" was only a cover for Barbara Ehrenreich; her behavior would, for better or worse, always be my own. In fact, in a practical sense I was simply changing my occupational status from "self-employed/writer" to "unemployed"--a distinction that might be imperceptible to the casual observer. I would still stay home most days at my computer, only now, instead of researching and writing articles, I would be researching and contacting companies that might employ me. The new name and fake résumé were only my ticket into the ranks of the unemployed white-collar Americans who spend their days searching for a decent-paying job.

The project required some minimal structure; since I was stepping into the unknown, I needed to devise some guidelines for myself. My first rule was that I would do everything possible to land a job, which meant being open to every form of help that presented itself: utilizing whatever books, web sites, and businesses, for example, that I could find offering guidance to job seekers. I would endeavor to behave as I was expected to, insofar as I could decipher the expectations. I did not know exactly what forms of effort would be required of successful job seekers, only that I would, as humbly and diligently as possible, give it my best try.

Second, I would be prepared to go anywhere for a job or even an interview, and would advertise this geographic flexibility in my contacts with potential employers. I was based in Charlottesville, Virginia, throughout this project, but I was prepared to travel anywhere in the United States to get a job and then live there for several months if I found one. Nor would I shun any industry--other than those where I might be recognized--as unglamorous or morally repugnant. My third rule was that I would have to take the first job I was offered that met my requirements as to income and benefits.

I knew that the project would take a considerable investment of time and money, so I set aside ten months9 and the sum of $5,000 for travel and other expenses that might arise in the course of job searching. My expectation was that I would make the money back once I got a job and probably come out far ahead. As for the time, I budgeted roughly four to six months for the search--five months being the average for unemployed people in 200410--and another three to four months of employment. I would have plenty of time both to sample the life of the white-collar unemployed and to explore the corporate world they sought to reenter.

From the outset, I pictured this abstraction, the corporate world, as a castle on a hill--well fortified, surrounded by difficult checkpoints, with its glass walls gleaming invitingly from on high. I knew that it would be a long hard climb just to get to the door. But I've made my way into remote and lofty places before--college and graduate school, for example. I'm patient and crafty; I have stamina and resolve; and I believed that I could do this too.

In fact, the project, as I planned it, seemed less challenging than I might have liked. As an undercover reporter, I would of course be insulated from the real terrors of the white-collar work world, if only because I was independent of it for my income and self-esteem. Most of my fellow job seekers would probably have come to their status involuntarily, through layoffs or individual firings. For them, to lose a job is to enter a world of pain. Their income collapses to the size of an unemployment insurance check; their self-confidence plummets. Much has been written about the psychological damage incurred by the unemployed--their sudden susceptibility to depression, divorce, substance abuse, and even suicide.11 No such calamities could occur in my life as an undercover job seeker and, later, jobholder. There would be no sudden descent into poverty, nor any real sting of rejection.

I also started with the expectation that this project would be far less demanding than the work I had undertaken for Nickel and Dimed. Physically, it would be a piece of cake--no scrubbing, no heavy lifting, no walking or running for hours on end. As for behavior, I imagined that 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. As it turns out, I was wrong on all counts.

Copyright © 2005 by Barbara Ehrenreich


Continues...

Excerpted from Bait and Switch by Ehrenreich, Barbara Copyright © 2006 by Ehrenreich, Barbara. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

Barnes & Noble.com: Bait and Switch is the follow-up to your bestselling book Nickel and Dimed. Why did you decide to turn your focus towards the white-collar unemployed?

Barbara Ehrenreich: Since writing Nickel and Dimed, I've gotten hundreds of letters from people in poverty. A lot of the people I've been hearing from don't fit the profile of the "unskilled," undereducated, low-wage person. They're college educated and, in most cases, were doing well until they lost their jobs, usually due to downsizing or outsourcing. I think I shared the common belief that if you're college educated, hardworking, and not a crack addict, you're pretty much set for life. So hearing from former white-collar, middle-class people who are facing destitution made me curious -- and concerned. I decided to investigate.

B&N.com: Did you think finding a corporate job would be as hard as it turned out to be?

BE: I knew it would be hard. I just didn't know how hard. I had certain disadvantages -- like being middle aged and lacking corporate contacts -- so I don't pretend my experience was typical. On the other hand, though, my age didn't show in my fake resume (coaches advise you to omit any experience from more than ten years ago), and people who had plenty of corporate contacts from previous jobs didn't seem to be doing so well either.

B&N.com: You wind up spending a lot of time dealing with "career coaches." Are they on the level, or are they preying on the vulnerable?

BE: Since the mid-'90s, a whole industry has sprung up to help -- or, depending on your point of view, prey upon -- white-collar job seekers. The "professional" coaches in this business are usually entirely unlicensed and unregulated. Some gave me what seemed at the time very useful advice -- e.g., on how to improve my resume. But others ranged from merely annoying to seriously whacked out. Like the guy who illustrated his "lessons" with Wizard of Oz dolls and advised me, on the basis of a personality test, that I am not suited to be a writer.

B&N.com: How much is the current outsourcing trend affecting the plight of the middle-class job seeker?

BE: A lot -- middle-class job seekers are unemployed because of outsourcing. I heard of people who'd been forced to train their (usually Indian) replacements before being laid off, which is like being forced to dig your own grave before you're shot.

B&N.com: Is going undercover at all fun, or just really hard work?

BE: It was more fun when I was working on Nickel and Dimed. The work was physically exhausting, but I enjoyed the camaraderie of my co-workers. A lot of them were funny, bright, and very generous. In contrast, my fellow white-collar job seekers in this project often seemed depressed, withdrawn, and guarded. But the worst of it was that I had to try to fake the attitude and personality that are universally recommended to white-collar job seekers: upbeat, always positive, perky, and "likeable." This did not feel at all natural to me or to many of the job seekers I met. Nor is it easy to "sell yourself" as if you were some sort of commodity.

B&N.com: Was it difficult to have to suck up to the corporations you're usually investigating?

BE: Ha -- good question! The answer is yes, but fortunately a lot of the coaching you get is really training in how to suck up. For example, I was told that if you read a flattering article about some executive you should write him or her a sycophantic little note about how impressed you are -- in fountain pen, on expensive stationery -- and request 20 minutes of his time to learn more about his brilliant career. You should also be fully suited up even on weekends and, if you are lucky enough to meet a potential networking contact, prepared to grovel.

B&N.com: How has the Internet affected the job-search experience?

BE: You'd think it would make job searching easy. You post your resume on the numerous job sites and wait for a potential employer to notice you. And wait, and wait...because no matter how spiffy your resume is, it's competing for attention with thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of others. Then I found out that big companies don't even bother having someone read resumes posted on the job sites; they have computer programs to scan the resumes for "key words," and who knows what they are?

B&N.com: What was the biggest surprise you encountered along the way?

BE: What surprised me most, right from day one of my job search, was the surreal nature of the job-searching business. For example, everyone, from corporations to career coaches, relies heavily on "personality tests" that have no scientific credibility or predictive value. What does "personality" have to do with getting the job done, anyway? There's far less emphasis on skills and experience than on whether you have the prescribed upbeat and likable persona. I kept wondering: Is this any way to run a business?

I was also surprised -- and disgusted -- by the constant victim blaming you encounter among coaches, at networking events for the unemployed, and in the business advice books. You're constantly told that whatever happens to you is the result of your attitude or even your "thought forms" -- not a word about the corporate policies that lead to so much turmoil and misery.

B&N.com: What's the fate of all the middle-class unemployed who can't get jobs? Did you start to relate to them?

BE: After losing a job, the first thing people do is cut back on their expenses -- eliminating "luxuries" like cable TV, meals out, vacations, and movies. As their savings, if any, shrink, they may have to sell their homes and move into a smaller place or with their parents. Eventually, most end up having to take what white-collar people call a "survival job": working in a big-box store, for example, at seven or eight dollars an hour. That may be where they get stuck, because the survival job interferes with the search for a more appropriate one. Wal-Mart, or wherever you're employed, doesn't give time off for you to go to interviews. And of course a low-wage job isn't something you want to put on your resume.

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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss your own career path. How has corporate downsizing, reorganizing or outsourcing affected your life?

2. Ehrenreich recalls her father's experience climbing the corporate ladder in the 50s and 60s. He was loyal to his company, and it in turn was loyal to him. Would this be a reasonable expectation today?

How have corporations changed in the way they treat their employees over the last generation?

3. Ehrenreich includes an eye-opening discussion of the personality tests, including the much-touted Myers-Briggs test, that are administered throughout corporate America. Were you surprised to discover how unscientific these tests are? Have you ever undergone similar testing? Do you question, as Ehrenreich does, whether you even possess a fixed "personality"? What various personality traits are you called upon to exhibit every day as a worker, parent, or spouse?

4. Throughout her job search, Ehrenreich is struck by the constant advice to adopt a "positive attitude" no matter what you're going through as an unemployed person. Do you think this is a good psychological strategy? Or do we pay a price for constantly concealing anger and sadness under a happy face?

5. How has the Internet influenced the job search process? In Ehrenreich's case, was it a blessing or a curse?

6. Ehrenreich describes most of her fellow job seekers as passive and seemingly beaten down -even more so than the blue collar workers she met while researching her earlier book Nickel and Dimed. Do you think this passivity was a result of unemployment or do you see something similar among white collar corporate job-holders you know? In our experience, does the corporate culture foster innovation and independent thinking or conformity and obedience?

7. In chapter three, "Surviving Boot Camp," Ehrenreich's coach insists that we only have ourselves to blame for whatever happens to us in life. How widespread do you think this idea is in our culture? Would you call it "victim blaming" or a correct assessment of one's personal responsibility? What do you think is the effect of this idea on people struggling with unemployment?

8. At one point, Ehrenreich makes a bid for a job with a company allegedly involved in abusive interrogations of detainees in Iraq. Have you ever considered a job-- or faced an assignment at work -- that went against your own ethical convictions? How did you handle the situation?

9. Chapter five, "Networking with the Lord," describes the evangelical Christian groups Ehrenreich stumbled onto in her quest for employment. Was she right to be critical of their proselytizing? What role, if any, should religion play in a secular workplace?

10. Discuss the gender and racial dimensions of job searching. Do you think Ehrenreich's experience would have been different if she had been male, or a person of color?

11. Did the coaches hired by Ehrenreich do anything worthwhile for her? What accounts for the popularity of career coaches, despite the fact that they are unregulated, aren't required to have any particular credentials, and charge a fee that is not contingent on the client's bona fide success in finding a job? Have we all become too dependent on dubious "experts" to tell us how to live our lives?

12. Discuss the book's title. What are college-educated young American being lured into? If a college education - even in a business major - no longer offers occupational security, how should young people think about their careers?

13. Some of the people Ehrenreich quotes -both scholars and job seekers - assert that achievement no longer guarantees success in the corporate world. In fact, if achievement leads to a higher salary, you may be a tempting target for a lay-off. What does it do to us psychologically when good work is no longer rewarded, and may even be punished?

14. Ehrenreich reports that, in a psychological sense, this project was far more challenging than the work she did for Nickel and Dimed. At least in the blue collar world, the expectations were straightforward: you do the work and you get paid, however inadequately. But in the white collar corporate world, factors like "likeability" seem to outweigh performance. Do you feel the pressure to fit in and be likeable in your job, and what kind of burden does this create for you?

15. The only job offers the author reeled in were independent-contractor sales positions, offering no benefits or security. In fact, benefits such as health insurance have been disappearing for everyone. Have you seen this trend in your own life and how have you tried to make do?

16. Ehrenreich finds the corporate culture shot through with what she terms irrational, even delusional, forms of thinking. Do you agree? And what does it say about the future of our economy if this is true?

17. What were your thoughts as you finished reading Bait and Switch? Is there any action you can take to reverse the trend toward greater job insecurity? Do you predict that legislation will ever be passed limiting a corporation's ability to lay people off at will or outsource jobs overseas? Can the compensation gap between CEOs and other employees keep expanding indefinitely?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 35 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(4)

4 Star

(8)

3 Star

(11)

2 Star

(3)

1 Star

(9)

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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2007

    She barely looked for a job!

    Halfway through the book, a career coach tells Barbara 'Alexander' that she seems . . 'angry.' She takes umbrage at the comment. In reality, the career coach's accusation may be the understatement of the century for readers of this lethargic study of a journalist hoping to land an executive-level job. She never does take a job--though she was offered two--but instead spends most of the book meeting with career coaches and slithering in and out of job fairs and support groups for fellow job seekers. Is she angry? I would say so, but it's hard to tell who is angrier--Barbara 'Alexander' the fictional job seeker, or Barbara Ehrenreich, the author. She doesn't find an 'acceptable' job for a long list of reasons. First of all, she is much, much older than the average job seeker. Enhrenreich doesn't reveal her exact age, but do the math: this is a woman who got her doctoral degree in the late 1960s. That makes her 60+ at the time she was researching and writing this book. [n.b. the woman on the cover of this book, a pretty, young blonde woman in her 20s, is definitely not Barbara Ehrenreich. the woman is a model]Second, she has very little experience to offer by way of her fabricated resume. She was looking for an 'executive-level' job despite presenting a career that consisted mostly of consulting. Third, she is so contemptuous of the corporate workplace, career coaches, and many of the people she encounters throughout her journey. I think a lot of the people she met thought she was angry, old, unmotivated, poorly dressed, officious, unqualified, or all of the above. On a final note, I don't think she tried very hard to look for a job. She seemed all too eager to post her 'resume' on job boards, and all too resistent to applying for 'real' jobs or networking with actual employers.

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2008

    Depressing and negative

    This is one the most negative books on the job search I have ever read. The author sets herself up for failure--and guess what? She fails. First things first. She is an aging journalist who sets out on a mission to prove that an older, relatively unqualifed woman can't find a job. She appears to be desperate, seeking the help of various career counselors, begging them for advice, anything, anything to help give her an edge. She spends page after page describing her encounters with career coaches. For heaven's sake, don't you know how to write a resume? She applies for and then rejects jobs without benefits because she claims they are not 'real' jobs. So why did she apply for them in the first place? She goes to a job fair and is surprised when she is 'button-holed' by someone who urges her to enter a drawing for a 'makeover'--just what you need when you are looking for job. She just doesn't get it. Age keeps coming up in this book. I wish she were not so self-conscious--about her age. In the end, I wanted her to take one of the jobs she was offered, just to see what it would be like to work for a living. I think that's her problem. She doesn't want to work. She strikes me as a journalist, not a worker type who goes to an office everyday and reports to a boss. The authoress also seems very angry. Like she's ready to explode. Why is she is so angry? Chill out. The job search isn't so bad. If she could turn back the clock ten years or twenty years, maybe she would find a job. I gave this book three stars because I think it is of value for someone wanting advice on how not to look for a job. Don't be negative. To me that's the message of this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 27, 2007

    Reality, and those who are motivated to deny it.

    I am a Computer Programmer who could find a job in a month back in the early nineties. Recently it took twenty two months. Yet we are told that there is a shortage. The book is right on the mark.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2007

    I can't believe people do all this to get a job.

    In the beginning I did not know what to expect. The title told you pretty much nothing of what the book was about. Once reading the back I realized Barbara was going to try to get a corporate job. I didn't know how she was going to get a job. I knew nothing of career coaches, of networking, or of boot camps. This book taught me a lot about what is all out there to help you try to get a job, and how hard it is to actually get a job. I thought that resumes were needed for getting a job, but I learned that employers don't even look at them most of the time! I thought that this book was really boring personally, but if you know nothing about the corporate world then you may learn a lot. You will learn that most of the things corporate people do to get a job isn't worth their time, and apparently they waste thousands of dollars for nothing. I find some of the things in this book hard to believe, but its non-fiction so I guess you can believe it. I wouldn't really recommend anybody to read this unless they needed to learn how jobless people try to find jobs.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2010

    Interesting Book

    It was a very informative book and taught met a lot about trying to find a job and all the things it entails. It is not an easy process at all. In the book, she goes undercover to try to find a good-paying white collar job. She must go through all different things. She meets with many different career coaches who try to get her started. She attends all sorts of "boot camps" and different kinds of networking events to try to get her name out there. As the time goes on, you can sense her optimism slowly falling.
    In general, it was very informative. She gives a lot of detail, which can be a good and bad thing. Sometimes it can take away from the real point she was trying to make, and other times it adds the other all affect she was trying to get across. She is also not afraid to let her opinion out on many situations which I think can be very distracting, but to others it may help them understand what she is going through and give them insight on her side of things.
    I would recommend this book to those who are curious about the effect this down-turning economy is having on job seekers. The extensive work she had to do is kind of mind-blowing. She spent so much time and money to try to find a job. She says that job seeking is like a job of its own, because it requires so much work, sacrifice, and research.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2010

    Bait and Switch

    In this book Ehrenreich goes undercover to find out just how hard it is to get a job in today's economy. She tries many different methods and approaches but realizes thath getting a job is not just a cake walk. As she goes longer and longer without finding a job her expectations and optimism begin to drop.

    The book was very informative and has alot of facts and figures. You really begin to understand the struggles that unemployed people are facing in today's world. Ehrenreich gives a detailed explanation of everything that is going on as well as her feeling about what is happening. This is a good and a bad thing because the book does get a little bit long winded. You can really begin to see how she loses confidence as the job search continues to be unsuccessful.

    What I understand from the book is that the job search is very difficult and frustrating. People who are qualified for nice jobs are taking jobs way beneath them because that is all that is available to them. The economy is in a bad spot right now and it is talking its toll on the working class even the high middle class people.

    I did learn alot from the book. I understand the effort that needs to be put into the job search and different methods to do so. One of the things that I did disagree with Ehrenreich on was the amount of money that she spend trying to get a job. I think that part was unrealistic. If you lost your job would you really want to spend a ton of money trying to get another one. I think you would try to save some of it. Other than that the book was good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 17, 2009

    An interesting book.

    Normally, I don't subscribe too much to the far left, where Barbara Ehrenreich definitely resides, however, there is so much truth in this book from my own experiecnes that to write it off as exaggeration or falsehood in any way would be folly.

    This book is engaging, I had trouble putting it down. The amount of stupidity and deception in the race to stay afloat engaged in by businesses, charlatans and people in the unemployment business is horrifying. And now, with the economy being as it is, these people will capitalize on all who are un/under-employed.

    Read, learn. Think, and watch your own job hunt to see how scary and accurate, this book is.

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  • Posted June 9, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    Everyone should read this book

    Like many of Ehrenreich's other books, this one is a commentary about a recent negative trend in the workplace, specifically, the obstructions placed in the way of those trying to re-enter it. She expresses her disdain for the workplace (which it deserves) through sarcasm, for example, regarding a beauty consultant's opinion of her cheekbones, "They are 'wonderful'; I can keep them." She loathes personality tests such as Meyers-Briggs, dismissing them as "meaningless" and having "zero predictive value," but I can tell you from personal experience that introverted thinkers usually make better computer programmers than extroverted feelers. That having been said, however, she makes an excellent point when she says, "If I am a public relations person by training and experience, what good will it do me to discover that my personality is better suited to a career as an embalmer?" Of course, this question would not apply to someone trying to enter the workforce for the first time; such a person would likely be better served by trying to enter a line of work better suited to his or her personality. Bottom line: her sarcasm and contempt are sometimes a bit much, but, as her conclusion points out, the trends she identifies are actually getting worse! Therefore, I recommend this book, especially now that such widespread unemployment is rampaging across the country.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2009

    Nothing we didn't already know

    This book was on the struggle white-collar workers go through to get a job. The book does a good job of showing how hard it is to get that perfect job you want in America. Ehrenreich goes through many different job fairs, career coaches, and networking groups to try and obtain a job and in six months still doesn't get one that fits her standards. She talks a lot about how companies try to make it sound like their companies are what you want to work for and then right when you want to get the job they tell you your real salary and how you aren¿t getting very good benefits. But by just listening to the news we also know this is going on. We all know about how some CEO's can get greedy and can keep making big money while they just lower their employees salaries and benefits. Also in the news we hear about all the downsizing and offshoring that is going on in America and this book just shows the readers more examples of this. <BR/>So overall I think the book does a good job of showing us examples of how hard it is for white-collar employees to get their perfect jobs and keep them but you don't necessarily need to read this book to figure this out.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 17, 2007

    A compelling critique of capitalism, in layman¿s terms.

    I am somewhat surprised at the contempt expressed by some of the other reviewers toward this author and the book, especially as it appears that their reading was ether incomplete or superficial. A common complaint seems to be that her experiences do not actually represent the condition within the corporate world. It is important to remember that it was never her intention to do a comprehensive study of corporate working conditions and its culture, as an entire body of sociological and economic scholarship is already devoted to that. She merely brings the same kind of firsthand investigation and direct interaction to depict the stories of ¿real people¿ as she did in Nickel and Dimmed. In this sense her contribution to the study of the corporation might not be original, but it is based on sound academic research 'look at the citations before you question the soundness of her claims' and is indeed factual. For those interested in a very accessible critique and social commentary directed toward the capitalist economic structure and its founding element the corporation, than this is indeed the book for you. In Barbara¿s book the working conditions and ideology of the corporation are depicted as a paradigm for the socio-economic arrangement of America, and thus the corporation is studied as a micro-chasm of a capitalistically oriented society. By illustrating the emerging and escalating crisis, exemplified by the formation of a new unemployment or ¿transition¿ market, Barbara critiques not only the corporation, but also the entire economic system that is founded upon them. As a side note, despite the previous reviewers remarks, none of her analysis is devoted to discrimination against ¿fat¿ people or Christians¿which leads me to believe that certain individuals who have reviewed this book how not read it at all.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 18, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 16, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 26, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted May 1, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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