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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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.” —Dorothy Gallagher, 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: 9780805081244
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/25/2006
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 788,523
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.10 (h) x 0.70 (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

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 the hard-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

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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

Provocative and frank, Bait and Switch explores a plight that has no doubt affected you or someone in your community. Barbara Ehrenreich’s first-hand account of a grueling white-collar job search spurs compelling questions for all readers, no matter what stage their careers have reached. We hope that the following topics will enhance your reading group’s discussion of this important book.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 2.5
( 22 )
Rating Distribution

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 22 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted March 20, 2006

    Read This, But With Caution

    While my experiences in corporate America have been extremely dissimilar to what the author describes, the book was an easy read and somewhat interesting. Keep in mind that this is the 'experience' of one person spending only a matter of months in a job search, in her admission seeking a higher level position, and not really truly even wanting the position as a job, but to provide writing material. Her experiences are interesting in that one can get a feel for what some (not all) people go through when searching for a new job in mid-life. But her efforts seemed to be simply a continuation of anecdotes, commiserating with other unemployed people. On a side-note, I strongly disagree with her feeling that the AFLAC duck is an annoying symbol. Personally, I like the duck and think it's a great way to remind people of AFLAC's business. I also didn't care for the way that the end of the book suddenly became a quasi-political platform, including her opinions on universal health-care and social security reform. Those things would seem to have nothing to do with finding a job. Read it, but read with a grain of salt.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2006

    Her experiment fails, but it makes for an interesting story.

    Bait and Switch is a companion to Barbara Ehrenreich¿s first novel, Nickel and Dimed, in which she chronicled the life of a blue-collar worker. As an investigative writer and journalist, Bait and Switch is the second time she has gone ¿undercover¿ to explore the working world, donning a new personality and beginning the job search from scratch, using today¿s typical methods. In her research, Ehrenreich attempts to convey to the general public the modern life of an employee of the white-collar world, and the astounding rate of unemployment for those who supposedly made all the right choices in life. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich¿s experiment was doomed from the beginning. She had only held one corporate job, and she was unwilling to fudge her resume in the fear of being found out. She was also unwilling to completely immerse herself in the life of an unemployed worker. Because she was not truly a part of the world she was researching, she could afford to be condescending towards the people trying to help her, because they were not her last hope. Her experiment could be completely invalidated because of one footnote on page 192: ¿Most of July was spent on Ehrenreich business,¿ implying that she took an entire month off from her job search because she has other things to do in her ¿real life.¿ Unemployed people cannot do this unemployment is every facet of their personality until they find a new way to support themselves and their families. Bait and Switch was an excellent representation of the average unemployed white collar worker, but that was not what it set out to do. Through stories directly from unemployed workers, the reader is certainly left with a sense of white-collar unemployment in the United States. However, her initial experiment fails because she does not execute it realistically, which is addressed in her conclusion. Her stated purpose was to gain first-hand knowledge of the problems in the white-collar work force why unemployment is so high, what it takes to find a new job, and why people were letting the impossible demands of the white-collar work place continue. Perhaps there aren¿t specific answers or solutions to these problems, because Bait and Switch only provides more hypotheses and further inquiries about the impenetrable land of Corporate America, from Ehrenreich and all the people she encounters in her journey. While Ehrenreich did not achieve her original goal, her story still makes for an interesting peek into the lives of the unemployed white-collar worker.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2006

    Dull and Self-Serving Look at Job Hunting

    This angry diatribe chronicles one woman's journey through the employment process. It is a slow, painful albeit well written read, interspersed with the author's ugly commentary: she seems to have something against numerous categories of people, in particular: Christians, fat people, and career coaches. She reserves special contempt for fat people. She is almost anorexically obsessed with weight, frequently noting her healthy dorito-free diet and need to exercise. Ehrenreich spends more time criticizing career coaches than actual job hunting. She was offered two jobs, one at Mary Kay, the other at Aflac. She turned them down because they were not good enough. (NO commission-based jobs for Barbara E. ). She was looking for an upper-level job despite having little demonstrable experience.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2006

    Eldery Woman Journalist Pretends to Look For A Job

    This is a book about an elderly woman in her 60s who writes in journalistic fashion about what it is like to look for a job--despite not having held a 'real' job in several decades (her own admission). First of all, I want to point out that the young blond woman on the cover of the hard cover version of this book is definitely not Barbara Ehrenreich. The REAL Barbara Ehrenreich is--I'm guessing--30-40 years older. Is that why this book was titled Bait and Switch? This book is not about an attactive young woman. It is a book about a tired, hate-filled, elderly journalist who spends most of her job search posting her resume on job boards like Monster.com and seeking the good counsel of career coaches. In fact, she spends page after page describing these people--even though 99% of true job seekers do not look for a job this way. This was supposed to be a book about what is is like to work in corporate America. Oddly enough, even though the author was offered TWO jobs, she turned both down. She acted like they weren't good enough. Correction, not good enough for Barbara Ehrenreich. This book stinks.

    1 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 21, 2006

    Barbara¿s Little Blue Highway

    Truly disappointing. I first skimmed the book in a store while waiting for a friend and thought it was dynamite. The introduction is the best part of this book, full of promise. However, after purchasing and getting all the way to the last page, I put it down with a shake of the head. The book in its entirety can be summarized, even predicted, by paragraph one of the first chapter. ¿But is the resume eye-catching enough? Or would it be better to attempt face-to-face encounters¿¿ Ehrenreich somehow manages to postulate that every mid-level job seeker is going to be seduced by the lure of career consultants. She, of course, was doing this as book research, and she had plenty of cash reserves in which to indulge her investigative appetites. But I think most of us job candidates are more sensible than she gives us credit for. The people she meets at the seminars and networking sessions are merely a small fraction of many others who go about their job search in a mundane, undramatic, but oddly effective way. We post our resumes, make a few calls, answer ads and use temp agencies. The pressure for an image makeover is grossly exaggerated here. I¿ve been in the unemployment line numerous times and it never took any amount of emotional contortion or compromise of principles to land a gig. Ehrenreich¿s elitism is glaringly on display here, as when she describes a participant in a Christian fellowship telling of a colleague who is doing mission work in Czechoslovakia, ¿a country, I cannot help but note, that hasn¿t existed since 1993.¿ Well, no, not by that exact name, but it is the Czech Republic, and very few individuals old enough to be looking for a job would scratch their head and wonder what part of the world is being referenced. Her aim here is to paint evangelical Christians as yokels. Everyone else is portrayed as mentally unbalanced to some degree, or morally bankrupt. We have caricatures galore here. Not just the aforementioned ignorant Southerner, but the perky blonde, the back-slapping salesman in the ghastly plaid jacket, the gay cosmetologist, the EST reject¿you can get a couple of chuckles from this book, but sadly little insight into real issues that plague the reader who is in between jobs. I can't fathom any true job seeker being impressed by this book. It's so obviously inauthentic. Not looking for a job? Then enjoy. Just don¿t let the shelf location fool you. This is not ¿current affairs,¿ ¿politics¿ or ¿social commentary.¿ It¿s lame humor and storytelling ¿ William Least Heat Moon did a far better job.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 28, 2005

    Right On

    Reading from the experienced perspective of an unemployed white-collar worker (IBM got rid of me 5 months ago after 28 years of hard work and dedication), there is truth in this book, even if the undercover job was not acquired. Ehrenreich¿s insight into the resulting leeches selling transitional services is right on -- people marketing $200 to $7000 services and clueless activities for finding a comparable job. If you are one of the nervously employed, I recommend reading this book. You will see what is in store for you should you wake up to corporate downsizing tomorrow, after having done everything right. If you are reading the book to gain insight into the grave social and economic problem that is building in America, you will be left with only a glimmer of the true and urgent problem. Read the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. If you are trying to understand the techniques employed behind the true bait and switch, the age-biased employee-laundering and pension defaulting activities occurring in corporations today, you won¿t get the knowledge from this book. Hopefully someone will right the exposé soon, maybe Ehrenreich in her next book...

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2005

    More Negativity Masking as Compassion

    Were her agenda not already established, her bonafides not already cemented, the author's so called experiences, might yield some positive recommendations to help those who have found themselves outsized or downsized. But Barbara has an axe to grind. It is clear from the opening pages and from her interviews (I heard the one with Michael Medved) and her rather imperiously sarcastic attitude. She is a rank and file member of the 'it all sucks' club. What she and those of her ilk in politics on the left fail to realize, is that America is a country built on optimism, sometimes blind, but more often than not is equipped with a now-clichéd 'can do' attitude. The world and the country have changed mightily in the past 40 years. I grew up in an entirely different place than I find myself in now. I was interested in her book, because I was forced to change careers after 25 years in an industry that was consolidated and subsequently downsized.......I was a middle management, and indeed executive cog in the Supermarket wheel, and at 47, found myself unemployed and too old to rock and roll and too young to die. If I read Barbara's book before tackling the problem, I might have been encouraged to shoot myself. Except, her so called plight has little to do with how real Americans confront adversity. There are times when you need to go with the flow, and adapt and fit in, and like it or not, 'corporate' culture has and always will favor the institution over the individual....so it has always been and always will be. But America is an entrepeneurial wonderland, and there are times when you apply your attitude, energy and will, and you do not whisper the word Failure. Ever. You do not become a victim. Ever. You do what you have to do to take care of your family. But you don't waste precious time whining or languishing in the notion that government owes you something. 26 weeks unemployment was a humbling experience for me, it was not 60% of my income, as she incorrectly quotes, it was about 15% of mine. Enough to buy gas and essentials, but not designed for me to be comfortable... just a bit of help when I needed it most. Which I paid taxes on, by the way, when I started generating income again. Change is a scary thing. But it is also important for growth. I am stronger and more vital today having been 'removed' from the comfort of my corporate security blanket....less dependent and more interactive. Perhaps clinging to institutional dependence is more the problem. I would have welcomed a treatise on individual responsibility, rather than a blame game on 'who did this to me and why won't they fix it'.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 24, 2013

    The book covers months and months of attempts by the author to f

    The book covers months and months of attempts by the author to find a job in corporate America, using a beefed-up resume for a fields in which she had little actual experience. There was no "bait and switch", despite the title, and there was no actual experience on-the-job as a middle manager in corporate America.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 9, 2010

    At last! Someone speaks the truth about the white collar job market!

    I thought this book was fantastic and right on the money! I have been through the depressing farce of white collar layoffs and job hunts several times since 2002 (well before the 2009 financial meltdown) and so have MANY of my former coworkers, neighbors, and friends. And it continues and only worsens today. I particularly liked the part about how employers expect you to be "passionate" about your job (you know, the one where you're doing the work of five people, because they laid off so many). And while I've known for a long time what many don't about official unemployment figures: namely that they measure ONLY people currently receiving unemployment pay--not those whose unemployment pay has run out or those who never qualified for it in the first place because they were hired as a temp or contract worker. I didn't know until this book that the official government definition of "underemployment" refers only to someone who is working part-time but would prefer to work full-time. It does NOT include former white collar workers who have taken what Ehrenreich terms "desperation" jobs, namely, anything they can get, at any pay, and likely without benefits. And the information about the stigma of ANY time gaps in one's resume, which Ehrenreich writes about, is sadly true. HR personnel have not internalized the "new reality" that workers have all been told to embrace, namely that they will have multiple jobs and multiple job transitions in their lives. But to HR personnel, a time gap reflects something bad, nasty smelling, and evil. While the book is at times so true it's depressing, it was refreshing and reassuring to hear the truth spoken aloud.

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  • Posted November 8, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    I think she set the bar too high for herself with "Nickel and Dimed."

    For me, the worst part of this book was having read it after reading "Nickel and Dimed." "Nickel and Dimed" was one of my favorite books of the year, and I loved her writing style and the interesting and different perspective she brought to her topics.<BR/><BR/>I felt that this book was ultimately lacking in a great deal of that interesting writing and viewpoint. As someone struggling to get a job just out of college, I can certainly understand where she's coming from, and she is right in her basic assertion that finding a job in America isn't always an objective or fair process. I just wish she had made this book a little more interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2006

    Five-page article sold as a book

    If you are looking to pass time with an author who is gifted in communicating strong emotions, you found your book. If you are hoping to learn about corporate bait and switch or getting a job, this book is void of that. The book jacket and introduction tells readers the author sets out to get a job, work in corporate America and then write a book about her presumed struggles. Barbara Ehrenreich admits she lied (p.9) to employers about her job history and got friends, with similar values, to substantiate her lies. It didn't work. She never got a job and wrote a book about it anyway. The content basically is a five-page article that Barbara Ehrenreich sold as a 237 page book that is slow paced. Monotonous details are ubiquitous (e.g. itemizing the food in buffet lines and what strangers put on their lunch plates). If you are discouraged about your job search, don't get this book. It will not lift you up, it will not help you get a job and it has serious potential to put you in a depressing downward spiral. Barbara Ehrenreich is unbalanced against capitalism and corporate America. While it is well known they are not perfect, Barbara Ehrenreich never mentions the positive aspects of capitalism and corporate America. Nor does she give comparative statistics on the amount of people who live well in capitalist economies verses other economies. The book is a constant flow of vocational pessimism. Although the author uses the first half of the book to set herself up as a well-reasoned, balanced and unprejudiced person, one does sense there is some bias to her writing. Not until page 139 does Barbara Ehrenreich reveal she is an atheist. Thus, one would think she would avoid churches. Yet she unashamedly goes to churches hoping to secure a job while lying about her background. She then grumbles that she wasted her time there. She mercilessly mocks common church-going people and those who don't accept her anticapitalist views. It is hard to conclude Ehrenreich walked into the church meetings and wrote about them without prejudice. While it is true that bait and switch is going on in numerous HR departments, this book has nothing about that.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 27, 2006

    Troubles in America

    If you are currently an unemployed white-collared worker, I would suggest reading this book to boost your confidence in knowing you are not alone. Ehrenreich places herself into this growing statistic in hopes of finding some answers but only discovers that she is not wanted. Because of her age I do not agree that this is even a viable experience because people over forty typically have troubles finding a new job whereas those just out of college have no problem. I thought the book became repetitive with networking and the ways that she attempted to find a job only to fail again and again.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2006

    Poorly researched

    This is a book about an angry older woman who looks for a job (barely). She doesn't find one but in the process we learn of her contempt for fat people, Christian, and women who look like tranvestites.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2005

    Opinion Passed Off As Research

    Ehrenreich's book 'Bait and Switch' is a classic example of deciding what conclusions you want to draw and then going out and finding the right anecdotal stories to support your 'conclusions'. There's absolutely no statistical research to support her hypothesis -- after all, that would actually take some effort. She had decided (about three books ago) that free enterprise capitalism is really bad and that most executives are really evil people. This is just one more verbose diatribe in a whole series representing her opinion and what she wishes the world was like. She tried to be cute and show that recruiters, coaches and employment services constitute just another 'industry' trying to rip us off. The substance(?) of the book vividly displays Ehrenreich's lack of scholarship and proves once again that she's out of touch with the real world...not to mention an appalling ignorance of business and economics.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2005

    Good writing, interesting topic

    I read this book in two sittings. Ms. Ehrenreich is an excellent journalist and a superb writer, though as with Nickel and Dimed, she loses me with the concluding social analysis. In Bait and Switch, instead of unions as the agent for collective change, Ms. Ehrenreich recommends unemployed white collar workers band together, ask fearless questions about the economic and political systems that have treated them so shabbily and then go forth, a sort of jacquerie with good manicures. That aside, one of the most compelling points Ms. Ehrenreich¿s makes is that many of the motivational tools of corporate America such as personality tests are just so much pseudo-scientific hogwash. I am glad to hear this since taking a personality test or learning how to achieve my potential makes me feel foggy. After reading this book I have decided that should I ever attend a meeting where Enneagrams is on the agenda, I will have an important phone call to attend to. I found the most disturbing aspect of the book to be Ms. Ehrenreich's experience with Christian networking. As a Christian with an evangelical bent (and I use bent intentionally) I pay close attention to what non-Christians say about their interactions with Christians. Even taking into account that Ms Ehrenreich as self professed liberal progressive probably has more than one bone to pick with the conservative end of Christianity so her objectivity might not be as impartial as one would hope, the Christian networking sessions sounded singularly uninspiring and not a bit helpful. At the very least, I would have hoped that she would have come away feeling a bit more hopeful. Actually, I would have hoped that she would have left the Christian networking sessions feeling that a job or a career is not the only way to a life of significance. I understand that to explore alternatives to the corporate American lifestyle was outside the purview of the book but still, no one anywhere asks her to question whether there might be other alternatives than this soul crushing job search. Or if they did, those discussions were not reported since they did not contribute to the end goal of getting a white collar job. One benefit for me after reading this book: I am more determined than ever to work towards a decreasing dependence on an employer or a high salary for my well being.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 18, 2005

    Writer exposes only a few

    Giving career counseling a bad rap with only a limited view of the profession is by itself an attempt to patronize the public and to discourage readers from seeking assistance. The author failed to speak of many of the independent counselors who work hard with their clients. What Color is Your Parachutte? has a list of good, honest, and decent practioners. Toby Chabon, M.ED

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2005

    'No One Will Hire Me!!!'

    That's the plaintive cry of Barbara Ehrenreich in this much overdone, pointless and impertinent memoir. In reality, the book is a two-hundred page expanded diabribe about the author's failed attempt (?) to find a well-paying job in corporate public relations. She walks around with an angry scowl etched on her face--a sulky and entitled matron grasping a dog-eared, fabricated resume. Her naivite about the job search process would astonish an 18 year old work study student. Get real Barbara. A true job search takes energy, courage, and persistence.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 20, 2005

    About as Thoughtful as Nickel and Dimed

    If you're uninformed enough to have enjoyed and believed the socialist tripe in Nickel and Dimed, you might enjoy this piece of work. It has about the same level of informed analysis.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 18, 2005

    Painfully Accurate

    I have a Masters Degree with a 3.7 GPA and have been unable to find any substantive work. This book describes my plight exactly. I too was so desperate that I sold insurance for a while, and found the cost of getting licensed more than a struggling person could afford. I was thoroughly scammed by 'job finding' agencies, the assistance of which was expensive and worthless. I finally settled for being underemployed with a blue collar job that provides good health insurance, and consider myself lucky to have found that. This book trenchantly illustrates a morbid side to today's economy that is all to real for thousands of workers.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2005

    Not bad but not anthing to lose sleep over

    I just dont think its that hard to go out and pursue the american dream. I just graduated college and not only did I find that elusive 50k a year job but most of my friends did also. I just dont buy into the book.

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