Protected from the grind of routine employment by a successful freelance career, she goes undercover to experience the American job-market. For her previous book, Nickel and Dimed, she took on back-breaking, calf-pummelling work - labour without status on the minimum wage. Although in theory it occupies a higher rung on the employment food chain, Bait and Switch is the more disheartening book. Bait and Switch is brutally disillusioned. Perhaps you feel the executive status you slaved for is a permanent attribute.
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In her latest book, Barbara Ehrenreich trades her Wal-Mart vest for a business suit. After exploring the world of dead-end minimum wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has set her sights higher on the career ladder in Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the American Dream, this time aiming to infiltrate the corner offices and listen in on the water cooler conversations of corporate America.
Her plan seemed attainable enough: get a top-notch career coach, sell herself to a range of companies, land a PR job with benefits, then reveal the dirty underside of the corporate world in her usual provocative fashion. Using her maiden name and a fake but realistic resume, Ehrenreich began drafting cover letters and posting her profile on Internet job sites. She attended career fairs in multiple cities, networked with job seekers and employers at churches and restaurants, and offered her services to dozens of companies.
She hired two career coaches to guide her and underwent personality counseling. In the end, she was offered two commission-based positions, one selling car insurance, the other selling cosmetics, and neither offering benefits or a high enough salary to land her in the middle class. While most of her criticism is aimed at the companies that suck the life from their employees before firing them, she also issues a call for action to the unemployed to rise up and organize.
Mother Jones: How did you conceive of the idea to research and write a book about the white-collar workforce? Barbara Ehrenreich: The impetus came out of Nickel and Dimed. But they lost a job at some point and never quite pulled themselves out of it.
What happens when you lose a job? How do you go about trying to find one? MJ: What were some of the things that you discovered during your job search that you felt people should be speaking out about? BE: One is how common it is to be fired or laid off within corporate America.
A number of people that I talked to seemed to have been doing very well when they were laid off. They had been praised; they had been promoted. That itself is disturbing. It creates a lot of anger and emotional hardship. People may become quite depressed. The psychological trauma of losing a job can be as great as the trauma of a divorce.
Then once you do lose a job, in whatever arbitrary fashion, there are not a lot of social supports for you. Our unemployment insurance benefits only last for 6 months now; it used to be 15 months. You lose health insurance because we have this absurd system in America where health insurance is usually tied to employment.
Your income dips. Or, you turn to your parents. MJ: Why do you think that is? BE: Well, the whole nature of corporate employment has changed very dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. Employers have gone away from the idea that an employee is a long-term asset to the company, someone to be nurtured and developed, to a new notion that they are disposable.
Or do you think the government is somehow responsible for the evolution of harsher corporate policies? BE: I think the big thing has been the failure of government to step in and provide some kind of cushion or social support for people who are being churned out of this increasingly jungle-like situation in corporate America. MJ: At the beginning of the project, you hired several career coaches to help you design your resume and guide you in your search. What are your overall thoughts about job coaching?
BE: A lot of what was going on with my coaches was a complete and utter waste of time. First, they all want to do a personality test. So what if I have the personality of an embalmer?
The tests have been completely exposed as nonsense. People take the test in the morning and then take it again in the afternoon and have a new personality. BE: The thing is, whether it works or not is not what determines whether it fades out or not. MJ: You went to several networking conferences, advertised as secular events, that turned out to be very religious in nature.
What bothered me was that I did not like being lured to a meeting with the idea that it was going to help me with job searching and then find out it was really about proselytizing. What bothered me even more than that—and even more than the fact that most of these were a total waste of time in terms of job searching—was the kind of casual homophobia and anti-Semitism that I encountered in these settings, where a guy in the front of the room would make some joke about Jews or gays and everybody would laugh heartily.
I wanted to get out of there. At another level, philosophically what offended me about these religious meetings was the cheapened version of religion that they present. You go up to him and ask him for a job tip? MJ: Even though you were unable to find a job, do you feel your experience in looking for one somehow reflects the corporate culture of today? BE: I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I wondered if I was just seeing strange, bizarre, marginal things, and what makes me think not is, for one thing, a lot of the coaches and networking leaders are usually veterans of the corporate world themselves.
Then if you look at the business advice books, which I drew on for my research, they have blurbs by current CEOs. BE: At first I said that part of the gap was due to homemaking, before I changed my resume to reduce it.
I thought there would be some kind of sympathy for that. That five-year gap could be fatal. MJ: In the end, why do you think you were not able to find a job? Looking back, I think that there were things I could have done differently; ways I could have made my resume more attractive. But I heard the same story from so many people that you put your resume up on those job boards on the Internet and you wait.
And wait. And nothing happens. The internet was supposed to make this whole business of job searching rational and simple.
MJ: Nickel and Dimed was met with great acclaim. It was made into a play and is required reading in many university courses. What do you hope to achieve with Bait and Switch?
There is quite a large constituency that could work to have better financial supports for unemployed people, extend unemployment insurance, and universal health insurance.
Beyond that, I think people who have been jerked around by the corporate world might want to start talking about corporate governance. Is the practice of constantly getting rid of people really any way to run a business?
The joke is on you, slave
Bait and Switch: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich