Bait and Switch [Buy Now]

Henry Holt, New York
By Barbara Ehrenreich
256 pages

All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job to the tune of $50K per year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join a little club called America, honey. In Bait and Switch, this veteran social critic uses the undercover approach of her bestselling Nickel and Dimed to explore life in the suites. The goal is simple: land a corporate job, report from within.

While Nickel and Dimed detailed this author’s experiences scrubbing toilets, waiting tables, and stocking Wal-Mart aisles, now she’s Googling, Monstering, and disseminating her resumé from home. She takes such measures as changing her name to her maiden Alexander, acquiring a separate checking account, and creating a bogus resumé. She also employs a dreamless team of job coaches who, in return for fees of $200 an hour, provide mostly useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resumé formatting advice, and personality tests.

Sadly, after a full year of job hunting, the best she manages are gigs pimping the respective fruits of AFLAC and Mary Kay. She decides to pass. Given this failure to deliver, Bait and Switch becomes merely a politicized job seeker’s diary.

Ehrenreich’s never in a position to observe other job seekers over the long term, though what’s missing in “on the job” immediacy is sometimes made up for in analysis. Like her distinction between blue and white-collar job hunting. In the former, basic motor skills and a drug test can usually get you in the door. But in the white-collar world, employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that does little more than gnaw the soul.

The contradictions stack up like unpaid bills. On one hand is the onus on keeping a positive attitude and conforming to the corporate culture, while at the same time the search is also akin to a spiritual journey.

So, somewhere in the gaping chasm between obeisance and vision quest lies the path to employment. Needless to say it seems like a recipe for schizophrenia. Of course, Ehrenreich has no love for this pabulum. She particularly detests the way victim blaming is dressed up and barked out as therapy by those who profiteer from the misfortune of others. Observing the author ripping these coaches and titans of the “transition industry” is one of Bait and Switch‘s greatest pleasures.

In her conclusion, Ehrenreich makes a rather bold assertion that the attitudes she observed in her year of job hunting were indicative of those of the corporate world at large. But work and working are hardly analogous. In the same way college freshman quickly learn that no one cares about their SAT scores, once you’ve got an ID badge and a copy code, no one cares about the bullet points on your resume.

Ehrenreich confesses that if she’d actually had a career in PR, her job hunt would’ve been assisted by a Rolodex full of contacts. This is no minor point, as everyone knows professional contacts are far more valuable than any classified section. Finding work with a fictitious history surely made her experience a lot tougher.

In order to write with authority, one has to spend real time with people inside their institutions. Ehrenreich does not come close, and as a result Bait and Switch is incomplete. It’s far from thoughtless or dry, just not the book it bills itself as. Covers and clichés notwithstanding, sometimes you can judge a book by its title.

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