Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American DreamBy Barbara Ehrenreich
If only the Tsar knew…. For centuries, serfs took consolation in the belief that the wrongs they suffered were local aberrations, beyond the ken of the benevolent monarch. What makes The Prince and the Pauper such an appealing fantasy is its premise that the social order is fundamentally benign. Injustice exists because of ignorance, not malice, on the part of the powerful. As soon as the Prince, posing as a commoner, sees for himself how his surrogates really behave outside the castle, he punishes the scoundrels and rewards the virtuous. After disguising themselves as prisoners, wardens oust brutish guards. Lieutenant colonels pretend to be recruits in order to expose sadistic drill sergeants. The New Testament proclaims that a God feigned human form to manifest divine love for the meekest creatures in his universe.
But what if Kenneth Lay knew that Enron had been transformed into a fiendish machine for defrauding employees, stockholders, consumers, and the public? What if George W. Bush knew that claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were false or that global warming is not just a wacky theory? We cannot count on benevolent despots to guide corporations or governments. Or even the universe. If representative democracies depend on an enlightened citizenry, one citizen’s undercover discoveries can be crucial to keeping all informed. In Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), Laura Z. Hobson tells the story of a journalist who pretends he is Jewish in order to document the extent of anti-Semitism and arouse his readers to oppose it. John Howard Griffin chemically darkened his skin so that he could pass for black in the Jim Crow South; Black Like Me, the 1961 book that recounts his experiences, helped turn white readers against flagrant racism.
Barbara Ehrenreich became famous for perpetrating her own identity theft. To write Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (2001), she donned a blue collar and labored incognito in low-wage America. Pretending to be a divorced homemaker reentering the workforce after a long absence, she deliberately sought out menial jobs that are usually invisible to members of the middle class from which she came. A spy among the ranks of the working poor, she spent one month each as a waitress, hotel maid, cleaning woman, nursing-home aide, and Wal-Mart sales clerk. Ehrenreich is no emperor of employment, but her undercover mission was designed to make enlightened princes of us all. She exposed the underside of American capitalism so that its victims need never wish: If only the well-fed reader knew….
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, an investigation of the working woes of the middle class, is a logical sequel to Nickel and Dimed. It is an attempt to survey the state of sedentary employment, if, as Ogden Nash observed, “People who work sitting down get paid more than people who work standing up.” But first they have to find work. To write her new book, Ehrenreich jumped into the labor pool for white-collar corporate workers, people who earn at least $50,000 a year and receive health-insurance benefits. The arms she saw flailing in the pool were not waving but drowning. Though her new book follows directly on her undercover research among the working poor for Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich comes to her current subject as an upstart member and long-time student of the bourgeoisie. The child of what, in Nickel and Dimed, she called “upwardly mobile working-class parents,” Ehrenreich, whose father mined copper in Butte, Montana, is now, with a doctorate in biology and thirteen books to her credit, closer on the sociological map to someone who manages an office than someone who cleans it. But she titled an essay that was republished in her 1990 collection The Worst Years of Our Lives “Is the Middle Class Doomed?” and observed that: “…the rich have been getting richer; the poor have been getting more numerous; and those in the middle do not appear to be doing as well as they used to.” When she wrote those lines, in 1986, Ehrenreich was both accurate and prophetic about the polarization of American society. She introduces “the central character” of her 1989 study Fear of Falling as the professional middle class, and, as the title suggests, she portrays that character as afflicted with anxiety over its continuing purchase on purchasing power and prestige. In Bait and Switch, the story is no longer about the fear of falling but rather about vertigo during the plunge.
Despite her own middle-class credentials, Ehrenreich disguised herself again to take on this assignment. She legally changed her name back to what it was before her first marriage, Barbara Alexander, and acquired a new Social Security number to accompany the persona she was taking on. She tweaked her resume so that it omitted all the books and articles published under the byline Barbara Ehrenreich, and she rephrased her actual experience and skills to market herself as a specialist in public relations. In order to report from the inside on the working lives of mid-level employees, Ehrenreich spent most of 2004 making herself available for positions in corporate communications. She never got inside.
Sisyphus, the Greek god of thwarted labor, was condemned to spend eternity trying to complete a task; he pushes a boulder up the side of a mountain, but each time he nears the summit it rolls back down again. Though the jobs that Ehrenreich performed in Nickel and Dimed lacked dignity, security, and decent wages, they at least offered her the gratification of accomplishing something she had set out to do. “[T]he fact that I survived physically, that in a time period well into my fifties I never collapsed or needed time off to recuperate, is something I am inordinately proud of,” she admits. Manual labor at least provided worthy challenges and contact with colorful personalities. However, Bait and Switch offers no such satisfaction, for Ehrenreich or the reader. In her dismal account of life in white-collar limbo, searching for a job becomes a full-time job itself, one devoid of income, passion, or fulfillment.
During her year of living entreatingly, Ehrenreich does everything imaginable to lure an offer. Traveling to several states on the East Coast, she attends applicant boot camps, job fairs, employment seminars, and support groups. She hires professional coaches to redesign her resume, make over her appearance, and sharpen her communication skills. She undergoes spurious aptitude tests, listens for hours to psychobabble, and networks with hundreds of other hapless supplicants. The bleakest moment in a long, dreary ordeal comes in Atlanta, after group sessions led by a manipulative humbug she calls Patrick, who contends that unemployment signifies a flaw in character and insists that belief in oneself and assertiveness are necessary and sufficient to land a good position. Applying his own aggressive teachings against him, Ehrenreich presents Patrick with a forceful argument for how he needs to hire her to handle his PR. Though she succeeds in exposing how pathetic Patrick’s business operation is, she does not even gain the wretched job of making him look good. After paying Patrick $175 for a one-hour session spent pitching her case, she leaves his office “filled with self-loathing and disgust.”
Many of the books and groups that Ehrenreich encounters echo the rhetoric of Alcoholics Anonymous. They treat unemployment as a disease, but they also blame the victim, for lack of resolve. Each prescribes a multi-step program to overcome failure at finding a job. Ehrenreich also stumbles into sessions that, applying a faith-based approach to the job search, are essentially Christian prayer meetings. She is appalled by the casual racism, homophobia, and misogyny she observes amidst the pious cant about the workings of providence in a ruthless economy. Religion, as she sees it, is the opiate of the unemployed. “Maybe one of the functions of the evangelical revival sweeping America,” Ehrenreich suggests, “is to reconcile people to an increasingly unreliable work world.”
While spending more than $6,000 and 10 months in her struggle, Ehrenreich rejects the only two job offers she receives. She could sell insurance for AFLAC, on commission, without salary, benefits, or an office. A job with Mary Kay has the added disadvantage that she would need to invest about $1,800 in an inventory of cosmetics. Those who strive for corporate success should beware of what they want; they might end up getting it. “The trouble with the rat race,” observed Lily Tomlin, “is that even if you win you’re still a rat.” Eventually, her research concluded, Ehrenreich is able to escape the invisible army of unemployed and underemployed who, raised to believe that personal advancement follows positive thinking and honest effort, somnambulate through the American Dream.
If Ehrenreich were Tsar, Patrick and other charlatans who prey on economic desperation would get their comeuppance. But she is only a social critic, and she counts on enlightened readers to rise up and right wrongs. Fifteen years ago, Ehrenreich wrote, “Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.” Hell now seems larger and harder to raise. In the final sentence of her woeful new book, all she can do is summon our courage, “the courage to come together and work for change, even in the face of overwhelming odds.” That is a job for which few are prepared.
Steven G. Kellman’s latest book is Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth (W. W. Norton).