Bait and Switch

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Bait and Switch book coverby Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books (September 6, 2005)

Much as I loved Ehrenreich's previous bit of class-conscious undercover work, Nickel and Dimed, and much as I admire her in general (we did go to the same school, after all), it took me a long time to get around to reading her newest work, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. A number of my acquaintances read it and didn't like it, their criticism ranging from a perceived lack of dedication to this project on Ehrenreich's part through criticism of her hubris in expecting to get a middle-class job with false or no credentials at all, but it wasn't really these criticisms that stopped me from picking it up. Really, what it came down to was that I didn't understand why Ehrenreich would bother with this project. I mean, given the work she did trying to understand what it was like to be part of America's working poor, why would she then revert back to (in my mind) wasting her time with the middle-class?

I can't say that reading the book completely answered that question for me, but it did shed some light on something I hadn't expected--middle-class or "professional" joblessness as a cottage industry. It makes sense, in a country where those who have can buy just about anything, that newly unemployed professionals would assume they could buy themselves into a new job, but it's not something I'd ever given any thought to, and it's the subject that Ehrenreich ends up delving into the deepest in this book, given that she is not able to actually find a professional middle-class job.

For those who don't know Ehrenreich's work, what she did in Nickel and Dimed was go "undercover" as a middle-aged woman with very few marketable skills, in several parts of the country. In each city, she found a minimum wage or slightly better job (waitress, house-cleaner, Wal-Mart employee) and tried to live on what she earned. She had a lot of trouble, and I thought the book brought a lot of things to light about how hard it is to make it in America as a low-wage worker. Many people were offended by this book as well, saying Ehrenreich was "posing," that as a highly educated and relatively affluent woman, she doesn't get it, etc. I disagreed with these criticisms, for the most part, because I think she had a very sensitive eye towards those around her and the truth is, for better or for worse, that her audience is likely to believe things coming from her, a journalist and author in good academic standing, that they would not necessarily believe coming from someone who was actually writing from the working poor class.

In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich plans to employee the same techniques to infiltrating the middle-class business world. The parameters she sets for herself, when she goes about looking for a job with her falsified resume, are that she will take the first thing she is offered in a business environment that is steady, benefited, and pays $50,000/year or more. Then she goes about looking, utilizing all sorts of job finding services, support groups, career coaches, etc.

And she doesn't find anything. She spends months, jumps through all the hoops, including make-overs and faith-based networking events, and puts in hundreds of applications, but her only job offers are for direct sales positions with no security. So the book morphs, and rather than being about having a middle-class business job, it's about trying to find one.

In my mind, that makes it a better book than it likely would have been. I don't think the seedy underside of desk jockeying is quite as interesting as Ehrenreich started out believing it might be. I've done it for a number of years now, and there's really not much to say about it. You sell a little piece of your soul, I guess, but you don't sell your physical health or your sense of security, and it's basically a pretty easy ride. Once you're employed, that is. Getting a job is the hard part, the interesting part, and the part that I was happy to read about in this book.

Some of the criticisms I've heard regarding the reasons Ehrenreich couldn't find the type of employment she was seeking are probably correct, but I think she did a better job acknowledging them than some. For example, she knew from the outset that her age (I believe she is in her 50s, but I'm not completely sure) would be a problem in her job search. This is a well-established fact. She acknowledges late in the book that the type of jobs she was applying to may have been a far reach for the experience listed on her mostly-fake resume, and I think that was likely a factor, especially given the tight job market she was attempting to enter. It seemed to me that by the end of the book, Ehrenreich was aware that the goals she set out with weren't completely reasonable, and I agree with her.

I suspect some of the criticism of this book comes from middle-class Americans not wanting to believe that their particular industries could be infiltrated by someone who has little or no actual experience, the way Ehrenreich did with working class occupations in Nickel and Dimed. People who make $50,000/year are far less willing to believe that anybody could do their jobs than people who make $5.00/hr. From my experience so far, this simply isn't true. My professional jobs may have been harder to snag, but they haven't been any harder to learn. My college degree has granted me entrance, sure, but the stuff I learned in college has had very little to do with what I've actually done on the job. Most jobs, from what I've seen so far (with obvious exceptions), are comprised of a number of tasks that can be learned by just about anybody of average intelligence and willingness. You may not understand the whole picture, but in order to do what you're actually employed to do, you don't have to. And I still hold that waiting tables is by far the most physically and mentally challenging job I've had yet.

To wrap up, I think this book is worth a read. It's not the groundbreaker Nickel and Dimed was, and I hope Ehrenreich turns her talents back towards a population that actually needs help for her next effort, but it's still interesting stuff, and well-done on the author/investigator's part. You can sense her learning with you as you read, just as you could in Nickel and Dimed, and I like that.

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