Book review: Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich. Recommended.
In the 1960s, the possibility of layoffs was always present in the minds of the automotive assembly and steel workers at the Ford Motor Company Stamping Plant and Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna, New York. I had friends whose fathers were out of work for months at a time. The fear of layoffs and plant closings was so prevalent that even at a very young age I asked my dad if he were going to be laid off. “No,” he assured me. “I’m so high in seniority that if they lay me off the whole plant is in trouble.” Today, that threat of layoff and long-term unemployment preys on the minds of those employees who once seemed invincible — middle and upper managers in marketing, IT, human resources, even accounting. In Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the bleak gray world of the white-collar unemployed.
Bait and Switch was intended to be the white-collar equivalent of Ehrenreich’s previous book, Nickel and Dimed, but she soon finds that, once you are outside the fortress of “corporate America,” for whatever reason, it is hard to get back inside.
As part of her effort to obtain a managerial or executive position in public relations, event planning, or communications, Ehrenreich encounters a parade of people who “did it right.” They graduated from college, obtained the type of job my father would have described as “good,” and worked hard and well — only to find themselves the victims of cost cutting, outsourcing, or “rightsizing.” Along the way, Ehrenreich discovers the cottage industry of “career coaches.” These seeming parasites on the unemployed range from the perky Kimberly, who represents “some deep coldness masked as relentless cheerfulness,” to Patrick, who blames the victims and who is last seen as one himself, depressed and popping sleeping pills. Whichever approach they take, whether it’s boundless optimism or unwarranted flagellation, these career coaches are skewered with Ehrenreich’s detached ironic humor that highlights their greed, their cruelty, and their utter ineffectiveness.
As Ehrenreich “networks” (although not with her fellow unemployed, per the direction of her coaches), she begins to piece together what the corporate world expects, if not what corporate life is like. She goes to mind-numbing seminar after mind-numbing seminar, held in large windowless rooms, where the attendees listen with zombie-like passivity to speaker after speaker for brilliant insights that never come. Meanwhile she finds that employers care less about qualifications and experience than about likability and “passion.” She is bemused to learn that employees must balance the ability to be a likable, passive team player with the appearance of being a passionate idealist. In this game, too large a swing in either direction is an invitation to leave, especially for older workers.
Ehrenreich’s attitude is sometimes irritating and illogical in a way that the reader is not supposed to notice. For example, she dismisses personality tests such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as unscientific, with “zero predictive value even in its own terms.” At every opportunity, she mentions how inaccurate the MBTI is when her results label her an “ENTJ” — after she has stated that she “race[d] through the test with the mad determination of a monkey that’s been given a typewriter and assigned to generate Shakespeare’s oeuvre, hoping that some passably coherent individual emerges.” Her own admission damages the credibility of her otherwise well-supported criticism.
Although Ehrenreich tries to convey the misery and hopelessness of the white-collar unemployed through her descriptions of and stories about the people she meets, her efforts to do so fall flat simply because she never feels the fear that they do; she can walk away from her fake job search at any time and resume her own presumably lucrative career without going into enormous debt and worrying about possible homelessness. The reader is aware of her disengagement, which, while allowing her to view corporate America coldly and dispassionately, and with sarcasm and contempt, does not really enable her to convey the despair of the victims in the same way that a true victim could. Meanwhile, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream seems to be an ill-fitting title — it’s not clear what the “bait and switch” is, and the “American dream” is associated with the ability of the poor and immigrant classes to rise to prosperity, even wealth, through hard work. As a twist on this idea, it doesn’t work.
It’s unfortunate, although no surprise, that Ehrenreich was unable to obtain a job and to write the book that she wanted to about the inner workings of corporate America. I would like to have seen what she would have made of her experiences from the inside. As it is, her efforts, limited as they were, inspired her to encourage the downtrodden, white-collar middle class to organize and strike back. I suspect that corporate America is too strong to notice or care.
18 February 2007
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf
I read Nickel & Dimed, and it was fantastic. Her work should be required reading.