Scott McLemee
White Collar Invisibility
Recent Work
Commonplace Book
Cat Blog

Newsday, 4 September 2005

BAIT AND SWITCH: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, by Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan, 237 pp.

Books about the poor are one luxury the poor do not crave. That reality was always a problem for the American left even during the Depression. An army of writers tried to create "proletarian literature." But its audience came overwhelmingly from the professional and middle class, among those already radicalized (or at least feeling guilty, or menaced). The people who actually stood in soup lines or worked seasonal jobs were more likely to go watch the rich swells Nick and Nora Charles be witty and devil-may-care in the "Thin Man" movies.

With Nickel and Dimed (2001), her book of first-person narratives from the world of low-wage jobs, Barbara Ehrenreich reinvented proletarian literature, and in more ways than one. I don't have any statistics, but it's fair to assume that the book's readership consisted mainly of people living above the poverty line. Like the earlier authors, Ehrenreich wrote from anger. She recorded the difficulties and the routine miseries of people -- maids, salespeople, service workers -- who otherwise find themselves invisible. (Such jobs involve a kind of social death.)

But Ehrenreich -- and this is where the similarity to the proletarian literature of 70 years ago ends -- did not romanticize anyone. The belief that oppression makes people noble, or confers some deep insight into the social structure, often involves some mixture of wishful thinking and half-concealed condescension.

There is a toughness to Ehrenreich's sensibility (an edge of irony and, at times, of frustration) that some more genteel readers have taken for hostility. But Ehrenreich seems, at heart, a pretty old-fashioned kind of socialist: She thinks people can and should improve their lot by collective action. When working people let themselves be doormats, or embrace the role of victim, or cling to the more bogus fantasies of individual success, it hurts everyone.

I've made this long detour through "Nickel and Dimed" because Ehrenreich's latest, Bait and Switch, is similar in some ways - but also quite different. This time, instead of working at Wal-Mart or cleaning yuppie toilets, Ehrenreich spent several months trying to get a job as a white-collar corporate employee: someone working in, say, a publicity office. She reassumed her maiden name, Barbara Alexander. She sketched out a resume in which her actual experience in journalism and academia was translated into its closest equivalents in the business world. (The term "consulting" is so very useful in its vagueness.)

And so she entered the labor market as a middle-aged woman competing for a job with countless other middle-class people of the same age -- "business professionals," as the expression has it, who one day learned that they were considered expendable by companies where they had worked for years.

But the path to re-employment is not short, straight or smooth. Ehrenreich's book is a saga of "retooling" and networking -- of visits to workshops and job fairs, and of expensive but ultimately dubious "coaching" by people who show Barbara Alexander how to improve her resume, her interview skills and her overall attitude.

The latter is, indeed, an early casualty. While Ehrenreich created a persona to report the story, the reality is that the details of Barbara Alexander's life and career make her a kind of doppelganger for the author. The dead silence following each job application begins to take its toll. By the end of the book, she has received offers from only an insurance and a cosmetics company - work paying on commission, with no benefits.

"A real job," she writes, "involves some risk taking on the part of the employer, who must make an investment in order to acquire your labor. ... No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me. Is the fear that, if given health insurance for even a month, I will go on an orgy of body scans and elective surgery? The most any corporation seems willing to give me is the right to wear its logo on my chest and go about pushing its products."

The humorous and the melancholy are tightly entwined throughout the book. My own experience as a reader was to seesaw between laughter and moments of abject terror at the thought of ever ending up on that particular job market.

It is not just a matter of humiliation, though Ehrenreich is certainly describing another variety of social death: a career limbo in which prospective employers treat you as practically invisible. She is also describing a kind of middle-class poverty. All those career coaches and employment workshops are the white-collar equivalent of the predatory creditors in poor neighborhoods.

But that reality is unthinkable for anyone who buys the whole bill of goods that goes with a certain strand of American individualism: the idea that personal success is your one real duty in life, while economic disaster is, ultimately, your own private burden.