- Hardcover: 256 pages
- Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st edition (September 6, 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0805076069
- ISBN-13: 978-0641786570
- Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1 x 8.3 inches
- Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 3.2 out of 5 stars See all reviews (272 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,207,755 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream Hardcover – September 8, 2005
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Questions for Barbara Ehrenreich
Through over three decades of journalism and activism and over a dozen books, Barbara Ehrenreich has been one of the most consistent and imaginative chroniclers of class in America, but it was her bestselling 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed, a undercover expose of the day-to-day struggles of the working poor, that has been the most influential work of her career. Now, with Bait and Switch, she has gone undercover again, this time as a middle-aged professional trying to get a white-collar job in corporate America. We asked her a few questions about what she found:
Amazon.com: Your previous book, Nickel and Dimed, became a blockbuster bestseller with a classic "there but for the grace of God go I" liberal message just when the general political mood of the country seemed to be going in a very different direction. Why do you think it struck such a chord? What sorts of reactions have you gotten to it over the past four years?
Barbara Ehrenreich: A lot of Nickel and Dimed readers are people who regularly inhabit the low-wage work world, and many of them write to tell me that the book affirmed their experience and made them feel less alone and ignored. Other readers though, are affluent people who write to say I opened their eyes to a world they'd been unaware of. For those people, I think one appealing feature of Nickel and Dimed is that it's a personal narrative that gives them a look at lives lived at the margins of their own. The most gratifying response has been from people who tell me the book inspired them to become activists for things like a living wage or affordable housing.
Amazon.com: At what point did you realize that your new book, Bait and Switch, in which you went undercover again, this time to tell a story of working in corporate America, was instead becoming one of not working in corporate America? Is that the story you expected to tell?
Ehrenreich: My initial aim was not "to tell a story of working in corporate America" but to try to understand the human underside of corporate America--the job insecurity, the constant layoffs and downsizings that now occur even in the best of times. I expected to get a job and hence an inside view, but I always knew that that would be very difficult. After about 4-5 months of job searching, I began to get seriously discouraged, but I also came to understand that a fruitless search is in fact a very common experience. After all, today 44 percent of the long-term unemployed are white collar folks--an unusually high percentage. It's their world I entered, and their story that I tell in Bait and Switch.
Amazon.com: For someone with a white-collar career, you didn't have much experience in corporate culture before you attempted to join it for this book. What surprised you the most about what you found?
Ehrenreich: What surprised me most, right from day one of my job search, was the surreal nature of the job searching business. For example, everyone, from corporations to career coaches, relies heavily on "personality tests" which have no scientific credibility or predictive value. One test revealed that I have a melancholy and envious nature and, for some reason, was unsuited to be a writer! And what does "personality" have to do with getting the job done, anyway? There's far less emphasis on skills and experience than on whether you have the prescribed upbeat and likeable persona. I kept wondering: Is this any way to run a business? I was also surprised--and disgusted--by the constant victim-blaming you encounter among coaches, at networking events for the unemployed, and in the business advice books. You're constantly told that whatever happens to you is the result of your attitude or even your "thought forms"--not a word about the corporate policies that lead to so much turmoil and misery.
Amazon.com: You seemed to make much closer ties with your fellow workers in Nickel and Dimed than you did on the white-collar job hunt. What was different this time?
Ehrenreich: You're right--there is a difference. But it's not so much a matter of personalities as it is about two different worlds. There's a lot of camaraderie in the blue-collar world I entered in Nickel and Dimed. People help each other and look out for each other; they laugh together--often at the managers. The white-collar world doesn't encourage camaraderie, far from it. There it's all about competition and fear--of losing one's job, for one thing. Other people are seen as sources of contacts or tips, at best; as competitors or rivals, at worst. And among the unemployed add shame and a sense of personal failure, the constant message that it's all your own fault. All this discourages any solidarity with others or real openness.
Amazon.com: God forbid anyone would come to your book as a guide for finding a white-collar job, but what advice would you give to someone in the shoes you put yourself in: a middle-aged professional woman, in fear of falling irrevocably out of touch with the world of the regularly employed?
Ehrenreich: You don't think I'd make a good career coach? OK, but I have three pieces of advice for the middle-aged, middle-class job seeker anyway:
One, be very careful how you spend your money and time. Since the mid-90s, a whole industry has sprung up to help--or, depending on your point of view, prey upon--white-collar job seekers. The "professionals" in this business are usually entirely unlicensed and unregulated. Also, watch out for events billed as "networking" opportunities that really have another agenda--like recruiting you into expensive coaching or proselytizing you into a particular religion.
Two, don't count on the internet job sites to find you a job or even an interview. On any of these sites, your resume will be competing with hundreds of thousands of others, and most large companies today don't even bother reading online resumes; they have computer programs scan them for keywords (and you won't know what those keywords are.)
Three, and most important: stop believing that it's your own fault. That's the first step to recognizing the common problems facing white-collar workers and responding to them. I'd be thrilled if this book, like Nickel and Dimed, also inspires readers to get involved and become active in efforts to make life a little easier for the growing numbers of people who are unemployed, underemployed, or anxiously employed. What could they do? Lobby for universal health insurance that's not tied to a job, for example. Fight for extended unemployment benefits. Raise their voices to complain about corporate tax breaks and subsidies that are justified in terms of "job creation" but often go to companies that are busy laying people off. One major reason job loss is so catastrophic is that we just don't have much of a safety net in this country. That has to change, and who's going to make it change, if not people like those I met in Bait and Switch? I've got a new website, barbaraehrenreich.com, and I'd like to hear from readers--both their stories and their ideas for how to take action.Classic Ehrenreich
Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America
Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class
Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War
From Publishers Weekly
A wild bestseller in the field of poverty writing, Ehrenreich's 2001 exposé 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 © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Top Customer Reviews
I actually HAVE a career in PR and noted at least one method that Ehrenreich didn't try, or at least, didn't mention. I found there are really one of two possible paths to land a PR gig; cold-calling just doesn't work. One method that worked for me -- absent any good contacts in the field early on in my career -- was taking internships. One of my internships was paid and the other was unpaid, but both built up a little mental Rolodex of contacts for me and some of those people were able to at least provide references, if not job leads. The other method she didn't seem to address at all and that is: start out in the mail room or reception. In most PR and advertising firms, a professional fresh out of school or with a Gap will not just start out at some cushy $50K account executive position right from the start. You start by sorting mail and taking phone calls. Back in the 80s, we called that "getting your foot in the door." Once you're in, then you hustle. You make friends, you go to lunch with people who are in a position to hire, you keep your ear to the ground for open positions and you position yourself (by getting involved in various projects) for job promotions and transfers to the job you want, not unlike interning.
Never in my life have I wasted money on career coaches (who have no credentials or otherwise obvious insight), job fairs, recruiters, or any of that stuff. In fact, all the career counseling material I've read advises against that sort of thing. If you have to pay money to get a job, it's probably not all that legitimate in the first place. Second, if one had the money to waste on a $4,000 workshop, why does one need a job? That sort of thing is totally out of reach for the newly minted college graduate or someone who has been working as a receptionist for minimum wage and is looking to move up the ladder.
Basically, in case you don’t know, Barbara Ehrerich is an academic, freelance writer, journalist and something of a left-wing activist. In Nickel and Dimmed she went undercover to discover how it is to live and work as a low-wage manual worker. In Bait and Switch her original idea was to find a managerial corporate job. Despite trying to do so for almost a year, she didn’t succeed in getting one, so instead she wrote a book about unemployed middle class professionals (I will call them “White Collars”) and how they are (not) coping with the process of job searching. Before I continue, I have to add that although I was never a corporate manager, I did work in the corporate sector. It was my intention to land a good job with a corporation and I have a couple of White Collars in my family who went through periods of unemployment, multiple instances of job loss and everything that comes with it. I can vouch to you from personal experience and from listening to stories coming from people whom I trust that what the author describes in this book is absolutely true. This is especially the case when it comes to those useless, infuriating personality tests, which I had to take at almost every job where I have applied. (I will get to that part later.)
First, a word has to be said about the White Collars that you are going to meet in the book. When it comes to people from the working class, there is a stereotype that they are poor because they are lazy, stupid, spend all their savings on alcohol and drugs, drop out of school too early, have teenage pregnancies, etc. In other words, the stereotype is that they have no one to blame but themselves.
This is not the place to discuss whether there is any truth in the stereotypes. I suggest reading Nickel and Dimmed for that. What I will say however is that the unemployed White Collars certainly do not fall under that stereotype. Sure, lazy, stupid, irresponsible White Collars do exist. Such individuals do exist at every level of society, from the poorest to the richest and passing through all the levels in the middle. However, you will not encounter them in this book. White Collars are almost all intelligent, hardworking, dedicated, down-to-earth people who care about the success of their employer and are willing to put in long hours even at the expense of their family and personal life. Many of them had a stellar record before being fired and there were absolutely no disciplinary problems with them.
So why were they fired? In the past, if you managed to climb the corporate ladder to the position of a manager, you were almost certain to keep it until retirement. Then, in the past generation or so, corporate mentality changed. The book does not get much into discussion why this change took place, but the fact is that it did and White Collars started losing their jobs in huge numbers simply because of corporate greed. Because of their high salaries, no matter their loyalty, dedication, competence and hard work, they started being fired, sometimes one at a time, sometimes in massive layoffs. In one company where I worked a couple of years ago, close to one hundred managers lost their job due to “restructuring” within a single week. The company was making good profits at that time, so the cuts were not necessary to stave off bankruptcy. So why were they all fired? Were all one hundred of them incompetent or something?
Once they lose their job, White Collars tend to have considerable savings, at least at the beginning. Of course, they want to find new employment as soon as possible in order to reclaim lost income and social prestige. This combination of money and desperation attracts sharks in the form or career counsellors. The problem with career counsellors is that this is an industry that is not regulated in any way. Anyone can declare himself one. You and I could become career counsellors even today had we wanted to.
The author recounts her experiences with a number of them. No doubt some career counsellors are nothing more than charlatans preying on the gullible, but the ones we meet in the book are well meaning. The problem here is that they are out of touch with the realities of job searching. Their advice is useless at best, and harmful at worst. I especially recommend the part when the author talks about Patrick and the group sessions that he runs. These sessions resemble more cult meetings designed to flatter his ego rather than genuine job searching workshops. When the author finally confronts him in private, it is by far one of the best scenes in the book. Had it been fiction, I would applaud the author for writing one of the most brilliant scenes in literature’s history. Patrick comes out at as a self-absorbed, pathetic individual who does the very opposite of what he preaches and yet who sees no fault with himself.
Patrick is just one example. Of all the career counsellors in the book, he is by far the worst (and the most interesting), but the others are hardly better. There is this one guy using big Wizard of Oz dolls for coaching (yes, you read that right) or a hyperactive woman who is infuriatingly excited about every single thing and who charges $200 per session, although her advice turns out to be flat wrong.
It reads like a comedy, but keep in mind that these counsellors are supposedly there to help people find jobs. People come to them for help, spend a lot of money they cannot afford to spend and in return they get advice of dubious quality. Many of these counsellors are former professionals who lost their job in some way and now run their business from their kitchen. They are self-employed people in whose interest it is to milk their customers for as much as possible, because otherwise they too will end up without any money.
And this is just about the career counsellors. The author also talks extensively about such job searching techniques as networking events, sending CVs online or personality tests. Personality tests are nowadays a very big thing. In my job searching I had to fill out a lot of them, some even the very ones mentioned in this book. You would think that they were designed by psychologists from Harvard or some other experts, but in reality they were created by amateurs with little or no formal schooling in psychology. Serious psychologists scowl at these tests, but corporations use them all the time without asking themselves if the tests are indeed accurate.
As I said, the author had spent close to a year searching for a job. She did everything that the counsellors told her to do, she attended many networking events, sent hundreds of CVs, filled out dozens of personality tests and spent hours each day looking for a job. She still failed. All this time she had the option of stopping and going back to her real life. From what I understand, she also has a working spouse who supported her during this time, so money was not a big problem. Even though it was a game of sorts to her, she still experienced acute stress, feelings of frustration, anger at the world, anger at herself, depression and self-loathing. She was told by others (especially career counsellors) that it was her fault that she could not find a job, so she felt incompetent. She was also told to lie shamelessly and ruthlessly manipulate other people to land a job, and she did do it. Being an honest person with strong values and dedication to the truth, she was loathe to do it.
If she, a person who had the option of walking away from it all at any moment, felt this way, imagine how White Collars feel. Unlike her, they are not working undercover to write a book. They do not have the option of going back to their real life because what they are living through is their real life.
What happens to them in the end? A few succeed and find a good job, but most last roughly a year. Then their savings run out, as does their resilience. The stories presented in the book are harrowing. Some try some sort of one-person business, like opening a freelance consultancy, selling real estate or this sort of thing. Most fail. Some move back with their parents. Sometimes it is the parents who move in with the children. Some end up on the street. Many find low paying blue collar jobs. They say to themselves that this is just temporary, but often a longer period of unemployment (or working at minimum wage job) means never again being hired for a good job.
Even those who do land a good job do not feel safe. Some are hired on contract. This means that they are often paid less than their non-contract counterparts and once the contract runs out, they are let go. Some get hired permanently, but “permanently” is a relative term because many of them get fired quickly for no fault of their own. (At least no fault that they can understand and no explanation is ever given to them.)
What kind of life is that? And it is not only the unemployed who suffer. The employed see their colleagues getting fired all around them and they can feel the executioner’s axe hanging over their head. They are told implicitly and sometimes explicitly not to ask for raises or any other form of recognition because that will make them more likely to get fired down the road. But even if they keep their head low, quite often they are still fired. They soon learn the hard way that loyalty, competence and hard work mean nothing to their bosses. They can be, and often are, fired at any moment without any explanation.
The most natural thing to do in these kind of circumstances would be to slacken and do as little as possible. After all, if my loyalty and hard work are not rewarded in any way and cannot even at the very least guarantee me job security, then the most logical thing to do would be to relax, kick back and do as little as possible. Why would I give my time, energy and loyalty to someone who obviously thinks nothing of me?
The problem is that if they do that and get caught, and most no doubt would, they will be fired too. So the White Collars have to work hard all the while they know that they are giving their heart and soul to someone who thinks nothing of them. Of course, they can do little to complain. With so many unemployed White Collars out there desperate for a job, firing an employee, even a high ranking manager, and finding a replacement is not a problem at all.
The feelings of anger, bitterness, depression and hopelessness run deep. These are not good feelings. The psychological damage quickly accumulates and in many cases will stay for the rest of the life.
This book was researched and written ten years ago. That was before the 2008 banking crisis. Things got only worse since then. The new austerity measures adopted around the world are causing even more devastation among White Collars. And it is no longer only corporate White Collars. Jobs and salaries are being slashed all across the board. Schools, universities, medias, even government functionaries, all are being targeted. The human suffering and social damage thus created is immense. If this does not stop and start reversing, eventually there will be a terrible price to pay.