Bait and Switch, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Bait and Switch

In her classic Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover to experience and chronicle the life of the “working poor.” Her time as a waitress, maid, and Walmart clerk showed her how poorly such workers are treated, and what a struggle it is for them just to get by.

Bait and Switch is a sort of sequel to Nickel and Dimed. This time around Ehrenreich sets out to explore the world of white collar corporate employment. The difference is, her efforts to gain access to that world turn out to be the equivalent in futility to K.’s efforts to gain access to the castle in Kafka’s unfinished novel. So of necessity the subject matter of the book becomes job hunting for a white collar corporate job, rather than actually working at a white collar corporate job.

Ehrenreich in real life had a great deal of experience in areas like journalism, teaching, public speaking, event planning, etc. So she created a fictitious resume with invented job experience that more or less corresponded to her real experience. She also changed her last name. (Being undercover, she obviously didn’t want her resume to reveal that she was a prominent enough writer to be a public figure, or that she wrote books about things like what it’s like to have certain jobs.)

She then applied to hundreds of corporations, but also spent a great deal of time in the white collar job hunting subculture of support groups, personal coaches, networking events, etc.

Ehrenreich has a wonderful ability to relate her experiences and observations in a way that is simultaneously depressing and laugh out loud funny. Not to mention she clearly and articulately offers social and political analyses of these experiences. She’s easily one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

You can’t attribute her lack of job hunting success to her values. It’s not like as a liberal she refuses to work for the more evil corporations, or refuses to do evil things for the corporations she is willing to work for. She stresses that she approached this like a normal job seeker, that is as a person who had virtually no moral scruples about employment.

In fact, since she was mostly trying for jobs in things like communications and public relations, she was setting herself up for particularly unethical work—lying and creating propaganda to further enrich whatever corporation happened to employ her.

I was actually uncomfortable with how far she was willing to go. I respect why she chose the approach she did as someone working undercover, and I know she wanted to forestall people being able to say, “Well of course you couldn’t make it in the corporate world; you told them you were unwilling to torture, kill, and devour your first born child to prove your loyalty to the corporation! Your book is of no relevance to us normal people who don’t put such unrealistic limitations on our employment!” But my problem is that had she actually been hired, she wouldn’t have been pretending to do evil things at her job, she would have actually been doing them. Ethically, is it worth doing that in order to write a better book? It’s at least a question to ponder.

In any case, Ehrenreich is an awesome guide through this bizarre world she’s chosen to explore for us. Some of the descriptions of the characters she encounters at these self-help groups, coaching sessions, networking meetings, etc. are just hilarious.

I love the guy who stood up at one of these meetings and dramatically told his “turkey” story: One Thanksgiving he and a friend found themselves in the kitchen before dinner. They were too hungry to wait, so they made themselves a couple of turkey sandwiches. Suddenly his friend had a stroke and collapsed. For months he fought to recover and to regain all his lost abilities. His extraordinary efforts were successful, and inspirational. The story ends with something like (I’m too lazy to leaf through the book and find the exact quote): “And today that man stands here before you! For it was I who had the stroke!”

Ehrenreich then puzzles over how nonsensical the story is. What’s the point of introducing the fake “friend”? Evidently the guy had heard motivational speakers give talks where they tell some story where they don’t make it obvious that it’s really about them, and then they end with a flourish revealing that fact, and so he decided to alter his story to try to make it like that, but really the story doesn’t lend itself to that style of presentation.

Furthermore, how are they making sandwiches before Thanksgiving dinner? Evidently we’re to believe that the turkey was done and had been taken out of the oven, that for some reason no one responsible for cooking or serving the food was in the kitchen (during this time that in the real world such people would be rushing to and fro in the kitchen putting all the finishing touches on the meal), and that he and his friend then sliced some meat off the turkey for their sandwiches, meaning that when the turkey was served shortly at dinner everyone would see it had already been cut into.

Obviously that’s not the part of the story that’s supposed to matter, but I love the way it leaves Ehrenreich scratching her head in confusion.

A lot of this is like The Office. Life can be every bit as insane as satire.

So much of what she encounters in her job hunting is so ridiculous that you wonder how people don’t more often notice and remark on it.

I think a lot of it is that unemployed people want to feel like they’re trying everything, that they’re being proactive and putting themselves out there, taking advantage of all available resources, and then unscrupulous people exploit that by claiming that what they’re selling helps people get jobs. They know there are plenty of desperate people who are in no position to be skeptical about anything that might benefit them in their job hunting. Even if the only evidence it’ll do any good is the person selling it saying it will, they can’t risk passing up what may be the one thing missing in their quest to find work.

Then again, while that might be what’s going on with a lot of the “coaching” and such, plenty of these groups she experiences aren’t for-profit businesses, but community and volunteer groups. Occasionally there’s an ulterior motive there too (e.g., the creepy fundamentalist religious groups that create job hunting meetings and events as excuses to proselytize), but typically they’re really trying to help.

Most of them—paid or not, sincere or not—teach the same kinds of things. There is virtually no emphasis on things like relevant skills and experience, or even intelligence. Getting a job, they all insist, is all about projecting an image as a certain kind of person.

Though they’re careful how they word it, the basic message is that successful job hunters are supremely confident, always cheerful, extroverts. They are maximally flexible in doing anything and everything an employer might require of them. They are positive thinking, enthusiastic, gung ho, team players. It would never enter their mind to have a political thought about the unequal bargaining position of capital and labor, to assess anything their employer is doing from an ethical standpoint, or to act collectively with their fellow workers in pursuing their interests.

Really 90% of this stuff overlaps with any generic motivational speaker/positive thinking/personal coaching/self-help thing. These happen to be directed at getting a job, but the advice people like this offer for achieving anything in life is pretty much indistinguishable from this.

God it’s sad though, on multiple levels. You really get the sense reading this why conformity is so irresistible for most people living mainstream lives, why almost everyone internalizes the Zelig-like urge to be acceptable to those around them by being as much as possible like those around them. You “win friends and influence people,” including people who have some bearing on whether you get a job, by going along with what everyone else is into, including in politics and religion. You never want to make people uncomfortable by being negative, opposing something popular, etc. Party poopers aren’t employable, regardless of the merits of their opinions.

Ehrenreich argues that the job hunting (and job holding) process for white collar workers is arguably more dehumanizing even than it is for blue collar workers. An ordinary worker must accept a massive amount of humiliation to be allowed to work to survive, but that’s mostly a matter of external behavior. What’s different about the corporate work world of white collar folks is that they have to feign (or more often develop for real) certain personality traits and attitudes. They’re selling not only their labor but their selves.

I agree, though I’d argue for a somewhat lesser degree of difference. I think the perky, confident, enthusiastic, extroverted, “I’ll do anything for the boss if I get this job” attitude is nearly as expected of the person applying for a waitress job as the person applying for an office job.

But then again, I wonder how true it is that these are the main factors that make you employable. Oh certainly there’s something to the idea that being an enthusiastic, positive thinking, extroverted conformist helps, but is it really true that these image and personality factors trump all other factors?

Ehrenreich is constantly told throughout her journey that these are the things that matter, but think about who is telling her that. Maybe learning some complicated new computer program, or learning Japanese, or being white would help you in your job hunting a lot more than learning to dress and speak like an ultra-confident person, but a motivational speaker or personal coach, or for that matter a volunteer leading a support group for job hunters, can’t teach you that new computer program or teach you Japanese, and certainly can’t make you white.

All they can do is give you a pep talk and focus on generic factors that allegedly apply to all jobs, so that’s what they do. They state or imply that being all upbeat like that all the time is the key to winning over a potential employer, but they’re saying that because it’s convenient for them to say it, not because it’s true. (Which is not to say they’re all lying; most probably believe it too, because most people most of the time not only say what’s most convenient for them to say, but believe what’s most convenient for them to believe.)

Furthermore, even insofar as these positive thinking factors do matter, just how teachable are they? Can you “coach” an introvert into being an extrovert, or do you just end up with an introvert awkwardly acting vaguely like an extrovert in a way that intuitively comes across to people as phony and off-putting?

I suspect that a far, far bigger factor to getting a job is “knowing somebody.” To be fair, though, this isn’t entirely ignored or denied by the job hunting gurus. They put a lot of stress on “networking,” by which they mean being always “on” whether interacting with strangers at a “networking” event, or even with people in your private life, as you seek to strategically turn every such interaction into a stepping stone to a job.

I doubt that kind of networking—with strangers or with the kind of people most unemployed folks interact with in their private life—is more than minimally helpful. I think you have to know the “right” people to get the opportunities. If you don’t have the family connections, didn’t go to the right schools, etc. to know such people, you’re going to have a much rougher go of it (which, incidentally, is one of the reasons affirmative action can be justified).

Not all corporate jobs are obtained by having connections like that, but I’d guess a lot more are than are obtained by anything a motivational speaker can teach you.

At times Ehrenreich makes it sound as if it’s virtually impossible to get and keep a white collar job, like if even someone as willing as her to do all the things you’re supposed to do to be employable fails, it must just be an extraordinarily lucky few who succeed.

Except regardless of what it might seem justified to infer from the experiences she relates, getting a white collar job simply can’t be such a rare fluke.

As Calvin Trillin once said in reference to movies like The Paper Chase, “If law school’s so tough, how come there are so many lawyers?”

There are millions upon millions of people working in white collar positions in corporate America. So it can’t be some mysterious, nearly impossible feat to get hired for such a job. How did all those millions succeed where she failed? (Hopefully it’s not the reason I found in reading Amazon customer reviews of this book, which made me both laugh and cringe. Multiple people complained that it was misleading to have a picture of someone else on the cover, because when you finally do see a picture of the author you realize she’s old, so of course no one’s going to hire her!)

Again I think a lot of it is that she’s chasing mirages by putting so much effort into all these auxiliary services claiming to make people more employable. I suspect she’d have done far better if she’d talked to her sister-in-law who works at Boeing, or her college dorm mate who works at Archer Daniels Midland, and let them know she was looking for work.

Everything seems so comical and low rent in this book because she’s really not encountering the corporations themselves. Most of what she’s dealing with is either independent of the corporate employers or outsourced by the corporate employers, like the salespeople who recruit her to be a salesperson for some corporation. They aren’t directly with the corporation itself; they just get a commission of some kind for recruiting more salespeople. Had she obtained one of those positions, she herself would have been similarly recruiting additional salespeople, without she or they ever having truly entered The Castle.

She just can’t seem to ever gain access to this world she’s seeking to enter. The contact she’s allowed is impersonal and remote—online applications and e-mail—and either garners no response whatsoever or some kind of canned, automatic mass response. She reaches the rather pitiful point of trying to sell one of the coaches on hiring her to do his marketing, because she can never get at any of these major corporations to even try to make her pitch. The Castle is forever shrouded in mist, just out of sight.

I have to mention that I loved her remarks about the various employment personality tests she took—Myers-Briggs, et al. I’ve had the misfortune of encountering a few of those myself when I’ve been job hunting, and I swear they are among the absolute stupidest, most insulting hoops to have to jump through.

They really are on the level of astrology. It’s frightening to live in a world where important decisions that can have a huge impact on your life are made on the basis of things like that.

One of the ones she mentions is the “enneagram,” which made me chuckle, because though I never had to take that in connection with a job, I did attend a presentation on it one time, and it was all I could do not to bust out laughing. The people presenting it, and the bulk of the audience, were taking it all so seriously, lauding it as based on some kind of ancient Turkish numerology, while anyone with the slightest modicum of critical thinking ability would recognize it as complete bullshit.

One thing I learned from Ehrenreich is that it’s not in fact ancient Turkish anything but is just some New Age nonsense invented recently. She says various enneagram practitioners attribute it to ancient Turkish numerology among many other things, but it doesn’t in fact come from any of that (except I suppose in the sense that if you interpret “based on” broadly enough, pretty much anything can be claimed to be based on anything else—i.e., I’m sure somebody centuries or millennia ago in Turkey said something that vaguely overlaps with this enneagram malarkey).

I don’t know that Bait and Switch ever quite reaches the classic level of Nickel and Dimed, but it’s in the same neighborhood, which is high praise indeed.

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