Wednesday, November 9, 2005

Brief review: Bait and Switch

Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005. $24.00

Like Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, Barbara Ehrenreich's new book bears a title in which the word in parenthesis makes all the difference. Between the hope and its fulfillment falls the futility.

Bait and Switch takes us into a world of people living in parenthesis, white-collar people who are "in transition," the corporate newspeak substitute for "unemployed." As in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich goes undercover, this time seeking a corporate position, presenting herself as a long-time freelancer (better make that consultant) looking for a position in public relations. Her job-search becomes a job in itself, a miserable one, with episode after episode in a surreal world of life-coaches, image consultants, and résumé rewriters, whose fees total several thousand dollars. Her recommended reading includes The Ultimate Secret to Getting Absolutely Everything You Want, which declares that "you alone are the source of all the conditions and situations in your life." (If you're unemployed, it's not the economy, stupid; it's you.) "Networking" events bring her into impersonal contact with other jobseekers, all trying to be upbeat in chain restaurants and windowless hotel conference rooms. I won't reveal how Ehrenreich's search turns out, except to say that the offers that finally come her way are a very far cry from what she was looking for. Bait and Switch closes by looking at white-collar people who have taken what are called "survival jobs" as "associates" in big-box stores and such: sad to say, their failed searches have ended in the world of Nickel and Dimed.

Many colleges are using Nickel and Dimed in "one book, one campus" programs. I greatly admire that book, but its campus use has, for me, always smacked of piousness--an intention to make students feel a vague compassion for poor people. A college community with reckless courage might ask its students to follow up with Bait and Switch. The two books would give business majors (and everyone else) a chance to rethink the ethics of the brave new corporate world awaiting them.

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