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"It's You, Stupid."

Courtesy of Henry Holt and Company/Metropolitan Books

Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (Metropolitan, 2005)

Extreme feelings of isolation, desperation, and depression can serve both as catalysts for positive and negative transformation. The recently incarcerated may have a spiritual awakening behind bars, but can just as easily give up on life entirely. Alienated teenagers could find fuel for artistic expression, but might also start running with gangs. Alcoholics, if lucky, stumble upon the twelve steps and a community of solidarity; if not, more alcohol.

And, as Barbara Ehrenreich suggests in Bait and Switch, when white-collar workers lose their jobs—and then have trouble finding another one quickly—they could in theory band together and become a political force, pushing for such policies as expanded unemployment benefits or even universal healthcare. Instead, as her book documents, discarded professionals seek refuge in the career consultant, leadership guru, and personality analyzer, who are always just a mouse click and short drive away, promising a better life. On nearly every page of Bait and Switch which chronicles Ehrenreich’s unsuccessful journey to become a midlevel corporate employee, she is subjected to the odd musings of these bizarre creatures, usually referred to in business circles as simply the “coach.”

Repeat after the coach, she is ordered: every unit increase in your personal sense of well-being increases your external performance exponentially. If that proves too hard to memorize, the coach offers a handy acronym to ensure recall: EP/PSWB. Which inevitably leads to EP 10+/PSWB, and also EP 10x/PSWB. And then, of course, F= GM1M2/R2. Which is just another way of stressing the importance of MAGIC: Making decisions, greater Accountability, Growth, reduce your Isolation, and deal with issues of Change. And when you’re beginning to think that career coaches can only dispense wisdom through acronyms and equations, don’t forget about this run-on haiku printed on a transparency (if you’re Ehrenreich, after all, you paid $60 for it):

Clear mind, skillful driver

Sound spirit, strong horse.

Strong body, sound carriage.

Mind, body, spirit work as one…

Path to victory is clear.

Welcome to the “transition industry,” a parasitic and growing phenomenon that is fueled by desperate jobseekers. Fired from your white-collar job in the name of cost-savings while the CEO rakes in multimillion-dollar bonuses? Wondering what went wrong? Rule number one, Ehrenreich learns through individual career counseling and numerous group workshops, is simple: the problem is you, not the system. Focus on you. Smile. Be nice. Network. Winning attitude! Rule number two: continue to pay lots of money to listen to pseudo-Buddhist blame-the-victim psychobabble.

In her follow-up to the wildly successful Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich legally reclaims her maiden name, Barbara Alexander, arms herself with a job search budget of $5,000 and a timeline of ten months, and sets out with the goal of landing a full-time gig that pays at least $50,000 a year, along with health care, in order to gain “a rare firsthand glimpse into the midlevel corporate world,” which may be rare for Ehrenreich (and this reviewer), but is familiar enough territory for millions of Americans.

Her first step in joining the 1.6 million unemployed white-collar professionals is to construct a résumé, which demands some creative tinkering. With her experience in journalism, she decides to market herself as a PR specialist, “since PR is really journalism’s evil twin,” and arranges a series of meetings with various career coaches. Unfortunately, after taking a personality test she learns that she probably can’t write very well, and it is suggested she engage in “intensive journaling workshops” to make up for this shortcoming.

Once she has her résumé together the rest of the book is full of networking engagements (all fruitless), PowerPoint presentations (all mindless), and an eventual 7-hour “boot camp” for executives. At the boot camp, anxious attendees learn that their problem is staring themselves in the mirror. At forty-two, a man named Jason, whose employer is in the midst of a firing rampage, shares his fears of being laid off, which he attributes to his advanced age. The boot camp instructor explains that it is “all internal—whether you’re sixty-two or forty-two or twenty-two…It’s never about the external world. It’s always between you and you.” For this, Jason has paid nearly $200.

Though wading through the stories of networking events can become a chore for the reader, Ehrenreich does have some insightful observations, one of which comes while attending a businessperson’s club meeting in Charlottesville. Having been upbraided by one of her career coaches for networking with other unemployed losers, she pays $30 for the chance to stare at another PowerPoint presentation and mingle with actual jobholders, who may have actual job leads.

Seated anonymously in the group of bleary-eyed employees, she muses about the differences between the employed and jobless. “I have to wonder,” she writes, “what distinguishes the jobholders as a class. If they don’t look any better or radiate any more zest than the job seekers, how come they were chosen for their job?” Her observation begs another question: if these people have jobs, why aren’t they noticeably happier than the desperate folks doing everything in their power to find work? Might it be that the depressed faces of the jobseekers and the jobholders have more in common than usually supposed?

This, it seems, is the underlying message of Bait and Switch, though Ehrenreich doesn’t completely explore it. People deadened by years of conforming to a corporate culture are ill prepared to question the ridiculous claims of the coaches. They have learned to play by the rules; they do what they are told. No one seems very happy about the arrangement, but no one does anything about it, either. The same faculties of independent and critical thought that have been smothered at work are those that are now needed in order to take a step back while unemployed and try to figure out why so many miserable people are in the same boat. Unfortunately, no one does. The emphasis since day one has been on being a “team player,” on “getting along.” The conditioning has been effective.

Six months into the search, after attending two faith-based networking events and succumbing to a complete makeover ($250), Ehrenreich is finally offered a job. It turns out to be a commission-only position at AFLAC, selling supplemental insurance. She turns it down, as they offer neither health insurance nor the required $50,000 salary she has laid out in the opening pages as her prerequisite. She does the same with her second job “offer” of selling Mary Kay beauty products. By now, time has run out on her experiment. She has spent $6000 on career coaching, résumé editing, trainings and workshops, a physical makeover, and postings on “VIP” job boards, without effect.

Some reviewers have criticized the entire endeavor, arguing that Ehrenreich’s inability to land a job says more about her lackluster résumé than the precarious situation of many white-collar workers. Perhaps they have a point about her résumé; I don’t pretend to expertise on the topic of what it takes to land a corporate job. But on the larger point about the white-collar unemployed, such critics aim wide. During her networking travels, it isn’t hard for Ehrenreich to stumble upon people with far more time under their belt in the fruitless quest for a job. In fact, the task of looking for a job becomes a job—and with none of the psychological fulfillment that comes with a paycheck and an occasional sense that one is doing something of worth. In its own way, Bait and Switch does remind one of Down and Out in Paris and London; for Orwell’s tramps, begging is an exhaustive, never-ending activity that rapidly diminishes any sense of self worth. In Ehrenreich’s account, “begging,” in fact, is exactly the word one coach uses to describe the job-search process.

And it is this mental, physical and spiritual exhaustion that makes Bait and Switch in some ways more depressing than Nickel and Dimed. One has the sense that the desperate job seekers actual believe some of what they are hearing from the coaches, at least enough to keep doling out large sums of money to keep the nonsense flowing. There is a market, apparently, for titles like Nonstop Networking: How to Improve Your Life, Luck, and Career and The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want.

The problem, the unemployed are told, is not they are being treated poorly by an irrational economic order, but that they harbor a “negative” personality, a cup-half-empty “thoughtform.” Each out of work individual seems to be walking around with a little boss and coach in their head, taking up valuable cognitive real estate. “What sets the white-collar corporate workers apart and leaves them so vulnerable,” she writes, “is the requirement that they identify, absolutely and unreservedly, with their employers.” If this type of thinking infected those low-wage workers of Nickel and Dimed, they might be reading titles like Understanding Your Luck: How Wal-Mart is God and Why You’re Fortunate to be Making Minimum Wage.

Ehrenreich, bless her soul, ends her book on a promising note—that the unemployed middle class might “make the leap from solitary desperation to collective action”—but it is hard to share in her optimism after trudging along for the ride. During the Depression, the unemployed working class banded together and fought back, focusing their anger on an economic order that left them penniless. One senses this inclination to rebellion in some of the characters described in Nickel and Dimed, and can imagine them tearing up the haiku advice of career coaches and being outraged that someone would actually dare charge for the service. But the majority of the unemployed white-collar workers that Ehrenreich encounters continue to fork over huge sums for the privilege of suffering through workshops where they learn that they are to blame for whatever they suffer. Until they run out of money to pay for such self-flagellation, it is hard to imagine them doing much about it.


Gabriel Thompson


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2005

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