Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

(My apologies to all you wonderful litbloggers out there for this rather cheap imitation, but I promised Cam I’d post on this book today. Also, I’m keeping up with one of my 2007 blogging goals of embracing my inner litblogger: this is my first blog devoted solely to a book I’ve just read.)

When I read books by Barbara Ehrenreich, just as I do when I read books by Sarah Vowell, Mary Roach, or David Rakoff; I first have to get past the green hue my skin takes on as I think about the fact they all managed to catch the calling I missed while I was so busy worrying about such things as food, clothing, housing, and health insurance (like those I just read about in this book). Am I the only one who would love to be able to visit all kinds of historical sites, interview residents and tour guides, pretending just to be a very interested tourist? How about traveling all over the world to try to discern whether or not ghosts are real? And then there’s posing as a white-collar, corporate-America-type, trying to get a job, as Ehrenreich did for this book. Once the acting’s done, you get to spend your time putting together a collection of witty essays or chapters for books people have already agreed to publish (probably with a nice little advance against royalties to help pay for all that travel).

But, all jealousy and envy aside, I picked up this book thinking I wasn’t going be all that sympathetic. I didn’t think I could feel the pain of whiny, laid-off executives who have always felt a sense of entitlement, and who are having trouble finding new six-figure-salary jobs. As they so often do, my prejudices astounded me. Despite these prejudices, though, I was still well aware of the fact that it’s easy for me to be dismissive of such people, because I have no debt, have no children, and have had steady employment since graduating from college, and that means I’ve been making a decent salary for some time now. If I were suddenly to lose my job, rather than grasping for another job in the corporate world, I’d probably see it as an opportunity to explore other career paths (psychologist, nutritionist, freelance writer all spring to mind).

I had approached the other Ehrenreich book I’ve read Nickel and Dimed with a much more sympathetic and open mind. That book is about the blue-collar workers of America: people working their butts off in jobs most of us white-collar pansies could stand for maybe two hours, many of them working more than one job, and they were still unable to make ends meet. That book made me feel there’s something very wrong with America, and it also reinforced my long-held belief that “The American Dream” (like winning the lottery) is only really attainable for a very lucky few.

But then I started to get into Bait and Switch and realized that this book also reinforces my long-held belief. I gather from Ehrenreich’s experiences (she decided to pretend to be an out-of-work public relations specialist and gave herself a year to try to find a job with a corporation) and from what she tells us, we have a glut of people (many whose parents were probably those work-their-butts-off-blue-collar Americans who wanted more for their children) who are finding life in the corporate world to be tougher than the lives their parents had. Their parents probably pushed them to get an education, believing a college degree would guarantee success. They’d never lack for a decent job with decent pay. They’d move up in the world. Well, it just “ain’t so.”

Remember how in the old days, only those with the right connections got jobs? Well, it’s not the “old days.” Nothing’s changed. I guarantee if you grew up in a family in which your father was CEO of Major Corporation, and you went to Ivy League School of Choice, and joined the right clubs and fraternities, you’re not one of the ones suffering today. However, if your father worked on the assembly line of Major Corporation, and you went to State U on scholarship, and you couldn’t afford to join clubs and fraternities, but made straight A’s in all your business and communications classes, the subject in which you majored, you probably lost your job at Minor Brothers Company going on twelve months ago now, have applied for countless numbers of other jobs, and still barely get a response from anyone.

As this book got into the details of how difficult it is for these people to find jobs, my sympathies rose. Ehrenreich approaches the subject with a wonderfully wry eye (why I like her so much), but after a while, even she can’t hide the fact that hidden beneath all the absurdity (job “coaches,” “networking bootcamps,” etc.) is the incredible sadness and disillusionment. When she reveals the life of the “bootcamp” leader, it’s almost enough to make one cry.

One of the most disturbing chapters in the book is The Transformation. Here, we basically learn that women can’t win in the corporate world when it comes to appearance. They’re either too beautiful and can’t be taken seriously, or they’re too masculine when they need to be more feminine in order to be “approachable.” My question is: why aren’t men seen as “unapproachable?” Aren’t they the prototypes of “masculine?” (But that’s a subject for a post on What We Said.)

Ultimately, I came away with very similar conclusions as Ehrenreich’s, which is that despite the fact that those selling advice to people looking for jobs will say that the most important factor is “attitude,”

...What they need, too, is not a “winning attitude” but a deeper and more
ancient quality, one that I never once heard mentioned in my search, and that is
courage: the courage to come together and work for change, even in the face of
overwhelming odds. (Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch, New York:
Metropolitan Books, 2005, p. 237).

I also came away from this book more aware than ever that I’m extraordinarily lucky, that somehow I’ve managed to find the Summerhill of companies in and amongst all the Etons and Harrows. She quotes Steven Covey, noting that he says that to achieve a level of passion in the workplace (“passion” is apparently a very important part of “attitude”) you need to:

...induce pain…As long as people are contented and happy, they’re not going to
do much. You don’t want to wait until the market induces pain, so you have to
induce it in other ways. (Stephen R. Covey, The Eighth Habit: From
Effectiveness to Greatness
, New York: Free Press, 2004, p. 4)

I work in a place where people are more passionate about what they do and more productive than anywhere else I’ve ever worked. We avoid pain. Ask any of the employees, and they’ll tell you they’re contented and happy. When our parent company conducts its employee satisfaction survey every few years, ours is the only one that consistently scores sky high, way above the rest of the pack. We’re also financially successful. We’re proving Stephen Covey wrong.

I, like Ehrenreich, believe America can change. More companies could be like the one where I work. However, it isn’t going to happen unless those who work for corporate America decide to shake it up a little, until people start joining together, putting their feet down, and saying, “this isn’t right.” Corporate unions might be a radical idea, but they just might change things for the better.


Anonymous said...

Damnit, if you litblog i'm never going to stop adding to my TBR pile. Just kidding! Emily, this is a wonderful review and you've very much made me want to read this book, given I hold many of the same stereotypes you claim to. I taught Nickle and Dimed for a year and let me tell you, NOT the kind of book you want to use to inspire freshman students...mostly poor, mostly on scholarship. I'm glad this one wasn't out yet.

Anne Camille said...

Emily, I'm hanging my head in embarrasment. I didn't even realize today was the 4th and have been so swamped with a project (maybe some of the that ridiculous 'pain' Covey talks about) that the book has languished partially read on the nightstand. I will post my review in a few days -- promise.

Emily Barton said...

Court, hmmm...I didn't think of the fact that if I litblog I might be able to get back at all those who've turned my TBR list into a TBR library.

Cam, no problem. I understand completely! Hope things calm down.

Rebecca H. said...

I'm with Courtney here -- although I enjoyed your post very much, I'm worried about my TBR list ... I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed very much, and this one sounds great too. I like your personal approach to reviewing it -- reading your post makes me realize how lucky I am in my job situation.

Anonymous said...

One thing I didn't mention in my own Cam-inspired review was that aside from having an engagement with (hopefully) the good guys in that particular world (though our'good guys'are actually nearly all women - interesting how student careers counselors in the UK are nearly all women and so many of the snakeoil coaches are men), I've also been through the year-of-struggling to find a job. And the Fear it inspires never entirely leaves, that of falling off the ladder and tumbling away forever.

Emily Barton said...

Dorr, well you and Court can relax, because I've just got way too much other stuff to bore everyone with to post on books too often. It will be a very occasional thing when I do. (Of course, I can't promise I won't talk incessantly about great books when we get together in person.)

(U)Dad, that's the thing. I don't thing she ever quite reaches an understanding of that fear, and I also think for the sake of the book, she spent more time than most exploring some of the more seedy aspects of the business of finding a job. I've known people who went to legitimate career-counseling centers and landed jobs where they've been very happy.

Anonymous said...

Just brilliant, Emily. You have the heart of a litblogger, never let it be said otherwise.

Emily Barton said...

Litlove, yes, it does seem to be where my heart lies, but I doubt I could keep it up continuously the way those like you do.