Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit Of The American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan), 256 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNN
All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job at $50,000 a year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join the club called America.
In Bait And Switch, the veteran social critic uses the same undercover approach to explore life in Dilbert Country that she used in her bestselling Nickel And Dimed. Her goal: land a corporate job and report from within.
To this end, Ehrenreich employs a team of job coaches who for a mere $200 an hour provide useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resumé advice and personality tests. After a year, the best gigs she can land are pimping insurance and cosmetics. Since both offer only "independent contractor" status (read no benefits), she decides to pass. Because of this failure, Bait And Switch is less an exposé of corporate America than a politicized job seeker's diary.
Ehrenreich ventures to job coaching sessions, executive boot camps and a host of networking events, but she's never in a position to observe her fellow unemployed over the long haul. What's missing in on-the-job immediacy, however, is made up for in analysis. Take her distinction between blue- and white-collar job-hunting. In the former, a pulse and a drug test can get you in the door. Not so in the corporate world, where employers expect applicants to demonstrate an almost spiritual satisfaction with work that does little but gnaw the soul.
For Ehrenreich, the systemic rise in white-collar unemployment coupled with lashings of downsizing amounts to nothing less than the shattering of a social contract understood by generations: work hard, stay loyal to the company and be rewarded with security.
The irony here is palpable; where dissident intellectuals once lamented the conformist oppression both meted out and endured by incarnations of "the man in the grey flannel suit," now, it seems, they can't wait for him to come back.
Was social stultification a small price to pay for peace of mind?
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