Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Barbara Ehrenreich Goes Corporate

Barbara Ehrenreich's new book is called Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, and it is the white-collar sequel to her bestselling Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.

Where in Nickle and Dimed Ehrenreich spends some months working minimum-wage jobs while also attempting to live on the salaries from those jobs, here her goal is to pose as a white-collar worker in "transition," trying to reenter a changed workplace after taking time off for family reasons. Ehrenreich changes her name back to her maiden name (to avoid recognition), and fakes her resumé to some extent (she gets friends to act as reference verifiers). Most of the chapters of Bait and Switch detail her various attempts to find a real job generally situated in the field of Public Relations or Communications.

The specific trigger for her interest was the spike of white-collar unemployment following the recession of 2001, which disproportionately affected people at middle and higher income brackets. But that's just one event: the general context of Ehrenreich's inquiry is the insecure employment climate that has emerged in corporate America since the 1990s:

Today, white-collar job insecurity is no longer a function of the business cycle--rising as the stock market falls and declining again when the numbers improve. Nor is it confined to a few volatile sectors like telecommunications or technology, or a few regions of the country like the rust belt of Silicon Valley. The economy may be looking up, the company may be raking in cash, and still the layoffs continue, like a perverse form of natural selection, weeding out the talented and successful as well as the mediocre. Since the midnineties, this perpetual winnowing process has been institutionalized under various euphemisms such as "downsizing," right-sizing," "smart-sizing," "restructuring," and "de-layering" -- to which we can now add the outsourcing of white-collar functions to cheaper labor markets overseas.

This world of endless cycles of layoffs threatens to become permanent, partly for the reason that, as Ehrenreich rightly points out, reducing payroll costs is always a quick way for a company to boost its profits.

Ehrenreich details her experiences attending "networking events," and also meeting a series of career coaches, as well as people who might best be described as "employment gurus" (charismatic figures who preach an empowerment message oriented to helping unemployed people feel more employable). She is insightful and often funny on the fallacies of the various employment aids she tries, and I was particularly struck by her take on professional networking:

[Networking] feels 'fake' because we know it involves the deflection of our natural human sociability to an ulterior end. Normally we meet strangers in the expectation that they may truly be strange, and are drawn to the multilayered mystery that each human presents. But in networking, as in prostitution, there is no time for fascination. The networker is always, so to speak, looking over the shoulder of the person she engages in conversation, toward whatever concrete advantage can be gleaned from the interaction-- a tip or a precious contact. This instrumentalism undermines the possibility of a group identity, say, as white-collar victims of corporate upheaval. No matter how crowded the room, the networker prowls alone, scavenging to meet his or her individual needs.

As an academic, I don't have any experience at all with the mid-career transition scenario Ehrenreich is exploring in her book, but I've had my share of demoralizing experiences networking in the academic context. She seems to nail it exactly.

Whether or not you agree with her specific politics, Ehrenreich is certainly a compelling writer, and I liked Bait and Switch, for its analysis of the current corporate climate as well as for the eye-opening exposure of the vast world of career guidance services, resumé-building, and "networking" (all of which are useless, and moreoever seem to be uncannily similar on old-fashioned pyramid schemes in structure).

Still, I'm not sure if the new book will be as influential as Nickle and Dimed, mainly because the world here is so much blander and contained. The stories in Nickle and Dimed were often shocking (especially for a sheltered/privileged academic like myself), but the white-collar version is devoid of interesting characters or gripping situations. "Downward mobility" may be a real phenomenon, but its victims are doing their very best to hide it behind a deadeningly predictable shtick comprised of the following buzzwords: qualifications, objectives, experience, contacts, vision, confidence, and [baseless] optimism.

On the other hand, Bait and Switch might be helpful reading for people who find themselves in roughly the situation Ehrenreich inhabited while doing research for this book (how not to apply for a job that you don't really want anyways). In contrast, Nickle and Dimed, for all its rhetorical power, is not really oriented to the working-class folks whose economic struggles it documents.


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