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.
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
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.
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.
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
The New York Times Book Review on 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.
Newsweek on Nickel and Dimed
Jarring, full of riveting grit . . . This book is already unforgettable.
San Francisco Chronicle on Nickel and Dimed
Courageous . . . a superb and frightening look into the lives of hard-working Americans.
Read an Excerpt
There’s all sorts of useful information being offered, which I struggle to commit to my notebook. Ask people to give you their contacts, and when they do, write them thank you notes by hand, on nice stationary. Get a fountain pen;
ballpoint won’t do. If you can’t get a real interview, at least ask for a 20 minute “contact interview” aimed at prying contacts out of people. Write to executives who are profiled in business publications and tell them what their company needs at this stage, which is, of course, you. Tell them how you’re going to “add value” to their firm. “Stand out. You’ve got to be the banana split.” Wear a suit and tie or female equivalent at all times, even on weekends, and I pick up a warning glance here: my sneakers have been noted. Network everywhere. One fellow landed a job thanks to networking at a 7/11 on a Saturday morning; luckily he had been fully suited up at the time.