Monday, January 16, 2006

Book Review: Bait and Switch

During an unusually long wait at the doctor's office today, I finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. Ehrenreich gained notoriety and mild fame for her 2001 book about America's working poor, Nickel and Dimed, for which she went undercover as an "unskilled" wage laborer. For 2005's Bait and Switch, she disguises herself as an unemployed, but educated and skilled, white-collar worker.

Ehrenreich discovers a life that is familiar to those of us who have exhausted ourselves in vain hoping to land a "real job." But she intentionally goes to greater lengths than the average white-collar job seeker. Ehrenreich hires career coaches, attends every job fair and networking event she can get to, posts hundreds of résumés on the Internet, gets a makeover, and reads a dozen-or-so books on success in the corporate world. Alas, Ehrenreich (who legally reverts to her maiden name, Alexander, for this project) fails to find reliable employment. She receives two offers—one from AFLAC and one from Mary Kay—but neither includes benefits or a guaranteed salary and both involve substantial personal startup investments.

Ehrenreich notes the corporate trend to convince employees and job-seekers that their fate is entirely in their own hands:

From the point of view of the economic "winners"—those who occupy powerful and high-paying jobs—the view that one's fate depends entirely on oneself must be remarkably convenient. It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers.

While we all must take responsibility for our own careers, Ehrenreich describes a corporate culture that treats its employees as expenses; that will lay off high-performing salaried workers if they can be replaced by consultants who don't expect benefits; that expects complete loyalty from employees without offering any in return.

Ehrenreich also happens upon the growing Christian business culture. I would expect the intersection of the church and the corporation to be a place where Christian businesspeople seek ways to increase wages for the working poor, to ensure that all workers have adequate healthcare, and to make sure that business has a positive impact on community. By contrast, Ehrenreich discovers that corporate religion has been dressed up as "Christianity":

In the testimonies I have heard so far at Christian gatherings, God is always busily micromanaging every career and personal move: advising which jobs to pursue, even causing important e-mails to be sent. . . .

The old [career] narrative was "I worked hard and therefore succeeded" or sometimes "I screwed up and therefore failed." But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort—working hard only to be laid off, and then repeating the process until aging forecloses decent job offers—requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institutional forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of you career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God.

However, both Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed reveal that Ehrenreich has a very limited view of the church. Yes, the "prosperity gospel" and Christianity-as-self-help are common in the business world (and have themselves become multimillion-dollar industries). But several churches take a different approach, serving as an advocate for workers who have been treated unfairly and as a support system for those who are going through a rough patch. Unfortunately, these churches don't always advertise themselves very effectively.

While I appreciate the work Ehrenreich has done on behalf on the American worker, I find her efforts patronizing. The working poor and the white-collar unemployed are not anomalous little subcultures—tens of millions of Americans fit into one of these two categories. As someone who has had to make ends meet by working low-wage jobs with no benefits and who has spent months as a white-collar job seeker, I'm a little uncomfortable with someone going undercover to experience a lifestyle that isn't at all uncommon.

Bait and Switch is a good read, and a quick read. Ehrenreich's writing is delightful and peppered with sarcasm and irony. While the author's approach certainly has shortcomings, the conclusions she draws are insightful, though worrisome. On a scale of 0 to 2π, I give Bait and Switch a 13π/8.


Blogger ColeWake said...

I don't doubt the problems people face in finding a "real job". But I am a semi-educated (some college, no degree) white collar worker who got my first "real job" at 23. It required me to relocate and has already lead to possible better oppurtunities. Of course, I worked on the ground floor, in retail, for a year before I transferred to this "real job".

Maybe she just wasn't looking or going about things correctly. I feel strongly for the "unskilled" workers who keep this country running, but I find it hard to cry for the ones fortunate enough to have recieved an education and consider themselves "white collar"

6:56 AM  

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