BAIT AND SWITCH: THE (FUTILE) PURSUIT OF THE AMERICAN DREAM
By Barbara Ehrenreich
Bait and Switch is a sequel of sorts to Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of (not) getting by in America while working for minimum wage. Her goal this time out is to land a “good” job (her quotation marks), 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.” It isn’t as good a book for several reasons, perhaps the most obvious being that Ehrenreich (or “Anderson”, as she takes her maiden name when going undercover) never actually gets a corporate job and does any work. Which says something both about the difficulty of finding good white-collar work (especially coming off the street with little in the way of recommendations), and how, perhaps even more, such work might be less desirable than blue-collar employment, especially for certain personalities. Ehrenreich is not well-suited for the white-collar world. Not only are corporations evil, but white-collar work is inherently without dignity. One has the sense that Ehrenreich would actually be happier folding sweaters at Wal-Mart than working in the PR department of a Fortune 500 company.
While always entertaining, Ehrenreich is really interested in illustrating a thesis, complete with a conclusion suggesting strategies for change. So it’s important to place her misadventures in context. The “bait and switch” of the title refers to the false promise of a good job (decent pay, security, benefits, not too demeaning or dangerous ) held out to those who “play by the rules.” In other words, the con is the “American Dream”: the idea that if you work hard you’ll get ahead.
Alas, this is no longer the way the world works. Personally, I have my doubts as to whether it was ever the way the world worked, but Ehrenreich believes in a Golden Age. She looks back to the example of her father, “who managed to rise from the copper mines of Butte to the corporate stratosphere, ending up as vice president of a research for a multinational firm. Did he ever take a personality test or submit to executive coaching? Or were things different in the fifties and sixties, with a greater emphasis on what you could actually do?”
It is an interesting question, suggesting several possible answers. For example: Might there be less emphasis on what people can “actually do” today because white-collar workers actually do so much less? Ehrenreich asks “What does personality have to do with getting the job done?” Nothing. But in many cases there is no job to be done, or at least it’s a job so simple even a chimp could handle it. No one with any experience of contemporary corporate bureaucracy can be unfamiliar with the dozen or so individuals in every organization who are mere titles – people who show up each day but whose function is a total mystery to everyone else. What value would skill and experience have for such positions? Ehrenreich may deride the cult of personality tests and its attendant New Age-style psychobabble, but the fact is most corporate jobs have as their primary function the task of making one’s superiors feel good about themselves. To this end, people have a natural tendency to build their own egos by surrounding themselves with insecure, obsequious, dummies. It’s the way the corporate world works. And yet Ehrenreich is shocked – shocked! – to find out that it is not a meritocracy. “It’s distracting to think that our major economic enterprises, on which the livelihoods and well-being of millions depend, rest so heavily on the thin goo of ‘likability’.”
Deal with it. If Ehrenreich has this much trouble with the corporate world, how distracting must she find the political realm? What was Ronald Reagan’s greatest political achievement but national ego-building, making Americans “feel good about themselves”? The current occupant of the White House is a figure totally without charisma (once deemed essential for political success), but possessed of a sort of dim “likability.” The same could be said of the last couple of Canadian prime ministers. And the same phenomenon can be seen in every university, in every department. Those who succeed aren’t the brightest so much as the ones who are easiest to get along with. This thin goo is the psychological cement of corporatism.
But of course you can’t say things like that in public. And so a verbal camouflage has been developed, producing, among other things, those middle-management job titles that don’t carry any discernable duties or responsibilities. And a whole industry of self-help books, seminars, résumé writers, and coaching services that preys upon the anxiety of middle-class downward mobility, speaking in “disturbingly loony” pseudo-scientific gobbledygook meant to disguise (if not repudiate) reality. Does anyone really believe any of it? It’s hard to tell, but when Ehrenreich goes to a Christian job-networking function one gets the feeling that this is not a question to be asked. Today’s white-collar job search is all about displaying passion and faith, qualities any prospective employee has to be expected to fake.
Always entertaining, Bait and Switch can also be quite irritating. Ehrenreich too often comes off as superior and condescending. Of course, as she admits, it’s easy to sneer at a lot of the nonsense she encounters. But this is missing the larger point, which is all about playing the game. As for not finding a job, that comes as no surprise. Her standards are set far too high (for someone without much of a track record), and her job search involves wasting a lot of time on the Internet and going to the gym. She seems more interested in the hunt than actually getting a job.
And I can’t say I blame her.
Review first published online January 4, 2006. With reference to the disappearance of the workplace from today’s fiction, it’s interesting to note how disappointed Ehrenreich was when she turned to fiction (“my favorite source of insight into cultures and times remote from my own”) for a glimpse inside the white-collar world: “While the fifties and sixties had produced absorbing novels about white-collar corporate life . . . more recent novels and films tend to ignore the white-collar corporate work world except as a backdrop to sexual intrigue.”