Anxiety and misery: job searching in the USA
Review by Fiona Harrington
In her previous best-selling book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, Barbara Ehrenreich entered the world of the low-paid, blue-collar worker as an undercover reporter to explore and chronicle the experiences of those forced to work for poverty level wages. She worked as a salesperson for Wal-Mart, as a waitress, as a cleaner and as a home-aide and concluded that it was simply not possible to survive on one minimum wage job. Most people required two or more in order to get by.
Now in her new book Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the Corporate Dream, she enters another world of employment - the world of the middle-class worker, or to be exact the white-collar unemployed and under-employed. Those who, in the words of one woman at the beginning of the book "have made good grades, who work hard and don't kiss a lot of ass and instead of getting promoted or paid fairly must regress to working for $7 an hour… and exist in debt they feel they may never get out of."
These are the people who've "done everything right". They've got degrees, they're hardworking and committed but instead of reaping their expected rewards, have found themselves victims of lay-offs, down-sizings and the various other retrenchments and adaptations of international capitalism, such as the outsourcing of so many white-collar functions to overseas cheap labour areas.
The main difference between the two books, apart from the type of work involved, was her failure to ultimately land herself a job in the corporate world. Hence she was unable to do what she had hoped - report on her experiences in actually working for a large company. Her strategy was to spend about six months job-hunting and several more months working in a company office before resigning to write up her experiences. For the job search part of the plan she budgeted $5,000 for "travel and other expenses" which she optimistically expected to easily earn back once she succeeded in getting a suitable job.
It could be said then that she failed in what she set out to do but through no fault of her own. She also did everything right and played by the rules of job-hunting in 21st century America, spending virtually every waking hour on task. Searching for employment, she discovers, needs to be treated as a job in itself and she succeeds admirably in describing this dreary and esteem-sapping business. Equipping herself, with the help of various "career coaches" with the best possible résumé, while being careful not to blow her cover as an undercover reporter, she sets out to sell herself to a range of corporations as an experienced PR manager and event planner.
She soon finds, however, that even more help is needed before she can succeed in her project. To this end she completes a personality questionnaire, has an image makeover and embarks, on the advice of one of these career-coaches, on a series of job-hunting seminars, networking sessions. She even attends a few evangelical "career ministries" and a couple of dubious so called boot-camps for “executives in transition” as the laid-off are advised to refer to themselves. At one of these she is advised to manage herself as a real manager would, structuring her day around a time-table of Internet searches and CV polishing and posting and making her day resemble, as far as possible, the typical day of the actually employed.
All of this requires money, many hundreds of dollars in some cases in order to attend events where she, among many other increasingly desperate people, is exhorted to maintain a positive, winning attitude and to never cease selling herself. This entails being endlessly cheerful, pleasant, adaptable, patient and never giving in to negativity or anger, while at the same time somehow managing to project a strong, assertive and competitive image. She has railed against the American "culture of cheerfulness" as she terms it elsewhere and in her soul-sapping search for that elusive ideal job, or even towards the end of the book, any job at all, she encounters that attitude again. What puzzles and concerns her particularly is the resigned acceptance of so many of the people she meets.
Why is there so little questioning of the way things are, why even so little anger? There are a few occasions where genuine fury flashes out or someone makes a cynical comment, once or twice someone weeps, but on the whole people blame themselves for not making enough effort, for not being sufficiently "marketable" even for being too old. She herself is advised to shave approximately ten years off her real age. The fault she discovers lies within, rarely in the outer world. So that if someone fails to net themselves a corporate position the reason must be some character flaw, or a lack of the correct attitude, but never the external environment such as the relentless demands of the market, or the structure of capitalism itself with its endless booms and consequent downturns and general capriciousness.
As for the job search coaches and career consultants she encounters, they are virtually to a man and woman unqualified charlatans who demand substantial fees from vulnerable people desperate to avoid the shame of prolonged redundancy and the inevitable downward slide into debt and poverty-level occupations. Ehrenreich herself after 10 months of fruitless job searching, became "overwhelmed by a sense of futility" and ended the project. She concludes that even she as a freelance researcher with nothing to lose, could not help but feel a sense of rejection and exploitation. Were she a genuine job-seeker she would after that length of time and a good deal poorer, be quite desperate. It was a depressing but instructive experience for her and she ends the book with an urgent prescription for solidarity among the unemployed, a complete change in attitude "from lonely desperation to collective action" in order to campaign for change by "lobbying for concrete improvements in the lives of the unemployed and anxiously employed" including unemployment benefits on a par with northern European workers.
But she also argues for going further than merely improving their own middle-class lives and to reach out to the low-paid, and the overworked "chronically stressed" workers. Not exactly revolutionary but a huge change in current practice nonetheless. This book should be more discouraging than it feels with its dismal descriptions of frustration and false jollity. But Ehrenreich writes in her trade mark breezy, humorous style making Bait and Switch a surprisingly-entertaining read despite the despair of the disposed and the cynicism of a system that regularly throws so many on the scrap-heap. She writes angrily too and while pulling back from actually calling for a wholesale rejection of this entire system, in the context of modern America nevertheless and global capitalism in general, this is a real protest against the acceptance of precarity and business as usual and a searing indictment of a system that produces so much anxiety and misery.
Bait and Switch: The Futile Pursuit of the Corporate Dream, Barbara Ehrenreich, Granta £9.99