Bait and Switch

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
by Barbara Ehrenreich

There’s a lot to recommend this book, and a lot in it to condemn. That’s a real shame, because I think Ms. Ehrenreich missed a great opportunity to have the reader understand and identify with the white-collar unemployed and those who seek to help and/or fleece them as they desperately seek to re-enter the corporate work force. Instead, she tells a story full of detached amusement and frustration that demonstrates her lack of true engagement in her subject.

In her previous best-seller, “Nickel and Dimed,” she posed as a middle-aged working-class woman in jobs such as a Merry Maids cleaning lady and a Wal-Mart employee to depict the struggles of people living on the edge of working-class America. “Bait and Switch” has a similar premise, with her posing as a middle-aged woman tired of freelance PR and event planning seeking full-time employment with a major corporation.

Over almost a year, she visits career coaches, resume polishers, networking events, and job fairs in the Washington, D.C./Virginia and Atlanta metropolitan areas. She encounters a cast of fellow middle-aged unemployed men and women laid off from corporations who are slowly liquidating their assets, losing their pride and self-respect, and resorting to support from aged parents and “survival jobs” like entry-level retail sales that further sap their depleted strength for professional job searching.

She finds it ironic that unemployment/job-seeking is regularly counseled to be full-time employment, complete with schedules, deadlines, supervision, and even wardrobes closely mirroring those of the employed corporate world. There is tragedy in the fact that many of the coaches and support group leaders she encounters are themselves unemployed and little better off than those they seek to help. She is offended and baffled that executive recruitment and placement is dependent on personality and “fit” far more than upon skills and experience, and nonplussed by efforts to have her identify her personality style, improve her wardrobe and appearance, polish her resume, and otherwise work on things she considers extraneous to job qualifications. (Of course, in a market where supply of skills and experience exceeds demand, intangibles like “fit” will often tip the scale between similarly qualified applicants.)

Ehrenreich’s lack of knowledge and lack of experience (she has never worked for a for-profit corporation and has never been a PR professional, either consulting or on staff) seriously hampers her ability to report on her experiences in an identifiable way. She also shows a real lack of ability to see the world through the eyes of those with whom she apparently disagrees. This lack of empathy further inhibits her understanding.

She admits that, had she really been a PR professional looking for work, she would have had the potential of tapping into a network of colleagues and clients who could speak first-hand of her talents, accomplishments, and expertise. She does make occasional reference to the advice she received that one shouldn’t be networking with other unemployed people, but she seems to have done precious little with that advice. I was also astounded that she took so long to figure out that she should join and become active in PRSA (Public Relations Society of America) if she wanted to be a PR person!

More importantly, had she been “for real,” she would have possessed the most valuable asset a consultant has — their body of work. Her resume, elevator speeches, and cover letters would have been peppered with recitations of her accomplishments and the “I did it for them and I can do it for you” approach that would have helped her in her search. Her job-search tools would have been less a matter of “creative writing” and much more the real issue of presenting her real self to others in a favorable light. With no corporate experience and no real consulting experience, she was left with an artificial exercise that made her contemptuous of those who might actually believe her created job-search story.

At the end, she finds no hope for the mid-career corporate job-seeker, and says their time would be better spent advocating for universal health insurance (she mentions no specific model or plan) than looking to re-enter a corporate world where employees seem to spend a lot of their time, as she sees it, worrying about being laid off. There were no success stories in her world and no opportunity for positive individual growth or change.

The frustrating part of “Bait and Switch” is that she may be right in many of her observations of white-collar unemployed life, but her approach, which largely involved doing almost everything she could to put herself at a disadvantage before she started, causes her results to come into serious question as representative of the white-collar world as a whole.