Hard At (No) Work

An insightful but flawed look into the land of the undead, as one job-seeker calls it


The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan; 237pp; $24

( below)

Editor's Review

Three Stars
Star Rating

The Good An insightful undercover investigation of the plight of the white-collar jobless.

The Bad Too much focus on the author's experience, and too little on that of others.

The Bottom Line Fascinating material, even if it isn't a fair test of the job market.

We all want to believe that we're smart enough, quick enough, or lucky enough to survive the ongoing turmoil in the job market. We hear tales of executives ejected from their companies who can't find positions that satisfy them. But we imagine that, should we be laid off, things will be different: We'll find other employment, maintain our incomes, keep our benefits.

Barbara Ehrenreich is here to tell us that chances are we won't. In her insightful but flawed Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, she temporarily joins the ranks of the white-collar unemployed to experience their anxieties, hopes, and frustrations. Such people are caught in a "perpetual winnowing process" -- they "did everything right" but still fall on hard times when they're let go from jobs they thought they deserved to keep.

The government calculates that from January, 2001, to December, 2003, 5.3 million people were "displaced" from jobs they had held for at least three years. About two-thirds had found work by early 2004, but of those, 57% were earning less than they had before. Moreover, white-collar unemployment -- and the poverty that often results -- is unexpected and unfamiliar, in Ehrenreich's analysis, "a rude finger in the face of the American dream." The problem is, Ehrenreich focuses too much on herself and not enough on these victims.

Going undercover once again, as she did in her 1998 best-seller Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the author sets out to land a "good" job -- a position that pays about $50,000 a year and provides health insurance -- at almost any kind of company in nearly any part of the country. She officially takes back her given name, Barbara Alexander. Then she gets a new Social Security number, crafts a résumé that exaggerates her relevant experience, and presents herself as a fiftyish public-relations professional seeking the comforts of the corporate world after years of working on her own. It's not giving anything away to tell you that she fails.

Her story, it turns out, is all about the hunt. Ehrenreich expects her job search, which takes place in 2004, to last anywhere from four to six months and to cost about $5,000 for travel and other expenses. She plans to work for about four months, then call it quits. But 10 months and $6,000 later, her sole offer is for a commission-only, work-from-home sales position at the insurance company AFLAC. At this point she concludes that, as well-educated and articulate as she is, her age and the fact that Barbara Alexander has only been a consultant make her unemployable.

During those 10 months, the author comes across a sorry assortment of career coaches. One drags out their sessions together by dissecting the punctuation in her résumé, while another gives her a cockamamie personality test. She then posts her résumé online and sends it cold to dozens and dozens of companies -- but doesn't manage to line up even one informational interview. Next she travels up and down the East Coast to participate in a series of "networking events" and job fairs held in the most dreary places, where the only people she meets are other job-seekers. She goes to a sparsely attended "boot camp" where participants are told their bad attitudes are holding them back. She shows up at Christian study groups that promise job-seekers divine guidance. She submits to a makeover designed to give her a more feminine appearance. She reads dozens of books on how to secure an executive position.

Such experiences are perversely fascinating, and Ehrenreich conveys them with humor and aplomb. But they don't add up to a fair test of the employment market. Who relies totally on strangers to find a job these days? Ehrenreich admits that "a normal job seeker of my age would have acquired a Rolodex of contacts." But what she calls a "disadvantage" turns out to be a fatal flaw for Bait and Switch, making it too contrived to be truly engaging. Moreover, unlike in Nickel and Dimed -- where going undercover provided startling insights into the ways low-wage laborers think about their jobs -- this time the approach doesn't provide much. It was easy to pose as a waitress and house-cleaner, but not as an executive. It's clear early in the book that the newly constructed Barbara Alexander doesn't have a real shot at a desirable job.

Ehrenreich should have concentrated more on the men and women she met during her sojourn into "the land of the undead," as one job-seeker calls it. Most, it turns out, were no closer than she was to securing jobs by the fall of 2004. Their stories would have provided a more powerful criticism of a corporate world that can leave even the smartest and quickest of us behind.

By Susan Berfield

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