Monday, April 23, 2012

Bait and Switch

Bait and Switch: the (Futile) Search of the American Dream
© 2006 Barbara Ehrenreich
272 pages

The road to success is hard work and an education, or so is the prevailing belief in the United States. In Nickle and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich noted the miserable difficulties facing the working class today: despite working hard, millions live a desperate existence,  forced by chronically low wages and the increasing cost of living to fight desperately just to survive. Some who read it might take relief in the fact that such difficulty can't happen to them -- not to someone who was intelligent about the choices they made in life, not to someone who stayed in school and set goals, who made a point of getting an education.  But another journalistic investigation by Ehrenhreich gives the lie to that belief, as well. In an era where MBAs and other college degrees are increasingly worthless in the job market, it seems that success in the white-collar world is just as fickle and dependent on luck as that of the blue-collar world.

Although Ehrenreich was not inclined to be sympathetic toward the 'plight' of the unemployed middle class, the idea that someone could do all the right things and still fail seemed problematic enough to explore. And so once again she reinvented herself, this time as Barbara Alexander. Converting her years of journalism into a resume fit for a public-relations specialist,  Ehrenreich decided to explore life in the fast lane, starting a year-long job search in an executive position. Her mission: to find out what was required to realize and maintain a high-powered job, to see how the stresses stacked up against those of the working class. As the title of her work might hint, that search was a failure. For as Alexander and thousands of other highly-educated and otherwise successful professionals found out,  netting a career isn't as simple as doing the right things.

Bait and Switch is essentially a book on being an unemployed member of the middle class. In her effort to find work, Alexander discovers that multiple careers exist to serve the mildy affluent unemployed. There are job search managers, resume advisers, professional gladhanders, and more motivational speakers than one might imagine. Considering how well-developed this niche profession seems to be, chronic unemployment among the middle class has apparantly been a problem longer than anyone might expect. The only jobs Alexander can find are not not conventional jobs at all, but ponzi schemes or somewhat exploitative 'job opportunities' like AFLAC and cosmetic personnel who don't so much work for the company as service them. Despite the wealth of information and coaching available to the educated jobless,  neither Alexander nor any of the many job-seekers she encounters ever finds a truly reliable means of finding employment other than luck.  Not even the personality changes they absorb through the seminars (which teach a secular Prosperity Gospel: conform to certain ideals, believe in yourself, and everything you want will come true) are to any avail.

Like Ehrenreich at the beginning of the work, I also find it difficult to be sympathetic toward these people, who apparently have enough money to hire coaches and go to seminars. Granted, few would be in the position of sampling as many coaches or seminars as Ehrenreich, who set aside savings well in advance.  The problem of finding the right work for educated personnel is more difficult to define than the problems of a working-class existence.  Lack of focus may be the key:  Ehrenreich and her unemployed comrades lacked a definable skillset, and the jobs they were applying for didn't demand explicit skills. Both job-seekers and the potential hirers communicated in the language of resume-gibberish, one with an astounding vocabulary full of words and phrases with vaporous meanings.  In contrast to this, educated personnel who were held to certain standards and expected to posses particular skills which could be articulated -- like accountants -- fared much better. Outside of these particular fields, it seems that both employers and job-seekers were shooting in the dark. Little wonder they met with so little success.

Bait and Switch is interesting, though not nearly as impactful as Nickle and Dimed.  Reading it stressed the importance of having an education with a point, and Ehrenreich' experience provides a look into the mindset of the corporate world. It isn't one I would want to share in, especially considering that some of the problems  (individual powerlessness against the companies) are the same.

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