Get a job

All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job to the tune of $50,000 per year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join a little club called America, honey. In Bait and Switch, this veteran social critic uses the same undercover approach of her best seller 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 her experiences scrubbing toilets, waiting tables and stocking Wal-Mart aisles, now Ehrenreich googles, monsters and disseminates her resume from home. She changes her name, gets a separate checking account and a bogus resume. She also employs a dreamless team of job coaches who, in return for fees of $200 an hour, provide useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resume-formatting advice, and personality tests.

Sadly, after a year of job hunting the best she manages are gigs pimping the respective fruits of Aflac (quack!) and Mary Kay. Because they’re both independent-contractor status positions, she decides to pass. Given this failure to deliver, Bait and Switch is not the up-close-and-personal exposé of corporate America you might imagine. Rather, it’s a politicized job-seekers diary.

As part of her search, Ehrenreich ventures to executive boot camps, a host of networking events and a few evangelical churches. Sadly, she’s never in a position to observe other job seekers over the long term. What’s missing in “on the job” immediacy occasionally is made up for in analysis, like her distinction between blue- and white-collar job hunting. In the former, basic motor skills usually can get you in the door. No one expects anyone to be passionate about the drive-through window. Not so in the white-collar world, where employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that does little more than gnaw the soul.

For Ehrenreich, the increase in white-collar unemployment and the downsizing and offshoring of previously “safe” tech jobs all adds up to a shattering of the social contract understood by generations of Americans. That is, work hard, stay loyal to the company, and get rewarded with job security.

The irony here is palpable, or at least it should be. Where dissident intellectuals once lamented the conformist oppression meted out and endured by incarnations of “the man in the gray flannel suit,” now, it seems they’d welcome his return home with a path of lotuses.

In her conclusion, Ehrenreich makes a rather bold assertion that the attitudes she observed in her year of job hunting were indicative of the corporate world at large. But work and working are hardly analogous. In the same way college freshmen 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 of contacts. This is no minor point, as professional contacts are far more valuable than any classified section. Finding work with a fictitious history surely made her experience a lot tougher.

“Undercover” journalism is often criticized by the trade’s purists. If you lie to get access, why should anyone believe the rest of your story? Let’s bypass this discussion and criticize it from another vantage point: 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.