Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
New York: Owl Books. 2006. Softcover. 250 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8050-8124-4
Reviewed by Paula Smith-Vanderslice
What can you do when you’ve got no job? Barbara Ehrenreich answers this question in detail in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. She tells us how searching for employment is a job in itself, requiring as much time and energy as having a job, but without the compensation or social support of coworkers. In addition, she says that in many cases the money a person invests in the job search results in an end result of no job, a goal unattained, and money lost. Ehrenreich speaks of those who have experienced obstacles to a fast financial track, for example, women who have become mothers in high school. She also speaks of the person who has “done everything right” as someone who has earned higher college degrees, and is a high achiever, as a loser in a classic game of “bait and switch.” That is, the high achiever’s salary has risen to a level that makes it look more attractive to the employer to cut the “valued,” experienced employee from the payroll so as to trim the company’s expenditures. Ehrenreich describes this trend as “white-collar downward mobility.”
The phenomenon of white-collar downward mobility is studied and compared with blue-collar unemployment. Ehrenreich cites figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which state that in late 2003, the U.S. unemployment rate was approximately 5.9 percent. During that economic downturn, the percentage of white-collar unemployed was much higher—at 20 percent of the total—than during any other time in U.S. history. She also noted gender and racial differences in unemployment rates: 1) that women were only slightly more likely than men to be unemployed, at 6.1 to 5.7 percent, respectively, and 2) that black American women were about twice as likely to be unemployed as white American women.
Alternately sobering and humorous, Ehrenreich describes her personal experience in the search for work in the corporate world, saying as she determines to investigate that “where I had imagined comfort, there is growing distress…” in the “…castle on a hill– well-fortified, surrounded by difficult checkpoints, with its glass walls gleaming invitingly from on high.” She describes her executive-level job search “boot camp” at a series of mall meeting places and her surprise at finding that many of those at camp with her were actually employed, albeit in an occupation much more lowly paid, and requiring more hours of labor per dollar earned, than what they had already been educated for, and were skilled and experienced at. As victims of layoff, they have experienced “survivor syndrome,” a form of depression. As for those in executive level positions, according to a 2004 survey (p.5), “. . .68 percent” were “. . .concerned about unexpected firings and layoffs.”
A dichotomy arises for the hard-working job seeker between expectations and fulfillment, Ehrenreich says, citing Mike Hernacki’s physics of wish fulfillment, the notion that “things attract other things.” She notes wryly that “no dollars are flying into my pockets at any detectable speed.” At employment networking sessions, such as the Forty-Plus Club, the author says that the notion of a “winning attitude” is discussed. She says that the thought prevails on the professional job seeker’s side that the “winners” are simply luckier, although the “winners” would rationalize that they simply have a more positive outlook on life, and that the losers are complainers who must have done something to deserve a worse fate, which is, Ehrenreich says in so many words, not what one wishes upon oneself.
Whereas a hazard of white-collar employment is immobility, in contrast, blue-collar employment “invites injury and exhaustion through physical exertion.” Whether a victim of “downsizing,” “right-sizing,” “smart-sizing,” “restructuring,” “de-layering,” or more recently, “outsourcing” to cheaper labor markets in other countries, there is now a resource for white-collar workers in the recently formed membership association known as United Professionals, which can be accessed online at unitedprofessionals.org. So called “disgruntled” professionals, those whose talent is being wasted while unemployed, can find and use their voices through this organization to solve problems in the world that American corporations are unlikely to solve, problems such as climate change, pandemics, and crumbling city infrastructures. Ehrenreich concludes in her afterword, “We may not all have jobs, but we have our work cut out for us.”
This book provides timely advice for the white-collar professional job seeker in today’s employment marketplace. The author provides valuable insight based on firsthand experience, as well as others’ accounts in their own words. Readers will come away with the sense that they are not alone in their job search predicament. For those who have spent months and even years searching for work, there is hope if they have faith in their ability to triumph collectively over the adversity presented by the condition of unemployment.
Paula Smith-Vanderslice is copy editor of Hunger Notes