Bend the Round

…where the madness is recorded.

Book 11: Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich February 25, 2008

Filed under: books — bendtheround @ 2:43 pm
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Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book some years ago called Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Making It In America. It was an expose on the struggles of the working poor in the US. I have not shopped at Wal-Mart since reading it (there are plenty of other reasons to avoid Wal-Mart, but that’s another story). In short, I thought well of Ehrenreich for shining light on a world a lot of us are blessedly unaware of.

Bait and Switch was intended to be a similar expose on the struggles of the white-collared unemployed in the US. Once again, the author went undercover, this time as an individual searching for a job in the area of Public Relations.

In short, after nearly a year-long search, she utterly failed to find a job.

I’m not surprised by this given her methods. While she did send out copious numbers of resumes and cover letters in response to advertised positions, she seemed to spend most of her time, effort, and money on the dubious career counseling industry. Her very first self-appointed task was to find and hire not one, but several career counselors and resume writing specialists. I lost track of the amount of money spent on these folks, but it must have been into the thousands of dollars. Then she pursued every opportunity to network…with other unemployed professionals. Most of the book was dedicated to group-therapy-like meetings in which she sat around with her fellow “in transit” employees. These groups ranged from the sad, to the cult-like, to conservative Christian gay-bashing groups.

Everywhere she went she got variations of the same two messages – your unemployment is your fault, and the only way to rectify your situation is to network (often with the intimation that the best way to do this is to fork over big money for the privilege of access to the presenter’s network of contacts). The similarity of the messages isn’t terribly surprising given that she went to the same type of functions over and over again.

I work in corporate America. I got the job I have now because I was fortunate enough to have interned with the company. So, while I work in the environment the author set out to explore, I did not go through the same job search as she did. Still, it seems to me that at least part of the reason her job search was so fruitless is that she focused her efforts in the wrong area. What, pray tell, is the point of asking the jobless for a job?? Go to industry conventions. Go to industry seminars. Go to business retreats – go where there are people working, thinking about their work, and talk to them. A lot of companies these days offer monetary rewards for finding new hires. Give the people working for those companies an opportunity to earn that reward! And the advice of talking to your acquaintances about your job search does seem like a good idea. Talk to your doctor, dentist, the trainer at the gym. You never know who’s going to say “hey, my brother-in-law was just saying that his company just lost their PR person, want his number?”

What baffles me is that despite her failure to find a job using the tactic of networking with her fellow unemployed, she was unable to come up with any other methods to try. Instead, she threw more money at “networking” events and image consultants, who kindly told her that her clothes made her were all wrong, threw out all her makeup, and sold her all new cosmetics.

The plight of the white-collared unemployed does certainly seem to be a serious issue, Ehrenreich’s book is not the place to learn about that issue or what to do about it. Instead of a full exploration of the problem, the book reads like a dire warning: if you have a white-collar job, you’re DOOMED! Given that the message of her most famous book seems to be “if you have a blue-collar job, you’re DOOMED!” It seems that the very large percentage of us Americans are, well… doomed. How depressing.

It’s a shame that Ehrenreich was unable to follow through with her original intent. The subject is most certainly worth exploring. It seems practically criminal to work employees like dogs from the time they get out of college until they reach their 40s or 50s then fire them because their experience deserves higher pay…and all the while salaries for CEOs and other upper management are reported to be higher than ever. Throw in age discrimination (the tendency for hiring managers to favor younger, less experienced, less expensive prospective employers), and you have a system that is severely screwed up when viewed with any humanity. Naturally, the problem doesn’t stop there – the healthcare crisis in this country makes the plight of unemployed white-collar worker even more severe.

Bait and Switch could have made for some excellent reading, I think. Unfortunately, the narrative she did produce is not compelling reading. It’s frustrating…in the wrong way. Instead of being frustrated with the system, I wound up frustrated with a frustrated author. It brings to mind a recent book called Scratch Beginnings – a book written by a college grad who set out to prove Ehrenreich’s book Nickel and Dimed wrong…that it IS still possible to go from nothing (as defined as $25 and the clothes on his back) to supporting himself, owning a car, and living on his own.

Maybe I should undertake the white collar job search experiment myself. Quit my current job and search for another one – then write a book about it the experience. Maybe I’d make a mint…because we know that’s the new American dream.

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2 Responses to “Book 11: Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich”

  1. righteousindigestion Says:

    Yeah, things like this get me pissed off. Because I have been toiling in retail and clerical hell forever and a day. And everyone’s advice seems to be, “Dude, you should be able to get a better job than that.” And it’s true, I should. I’ve got a BA and an MFA, ridiculous amounts of job experience, and a winning personality. And yet, I toil at my craphole job.

    Nobody wants to pay for someone with a degree that’s liberal arts, because they assume you’re going just going to up and leave whenever you get the chance. And they figure you’ll find a better job in a few years anyway.

    My father has been pinging from job to job after getting shitcanned from his old company. He’s had to take paycuts, vacation cuts, and has been shunted from one business to the next. His expertise doesn’t mean shit because nobody wants to pay to keep him.

    I don’t know where these magical better jobs are. I wish I did. That’d be awesome. Somewhere where they actually understand a liberal arts degree means you know a whole bunch of shit, rather than a speciality in one area.

    Ah, sorry. Rant subsided.

  2. bendtheround Says:

    I hear ya. It makes me think of something my dad said years ago. He said, “You’ll never get rich working for somebody else.” While there’s plenty more to life than getting rich, the comment’s stayed with me. I’ve had an itch to start a business of my own ever since. If nothing else, I’d be in control of my own fate. At best, I’d be able to provide the kind of employment people like your dad deserve. I hate hearing stories like those. People deserve much, much better than that.


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