Bait & Switch, is a natural successor to Ehrenreich’s earlier book: Nickel & Dimed (reviewed on this blog in part 1 and part 2). As an author I find her to be both honest and thorough in her research, and her topic area in both this book and its precursor have been particularly relevant to me. When I saw the book sitting on the shelves of Autumn Leaves, it was a must-grab.
The title eponymously refers to a con-artist tactic wherein the victim is led into the con with the promises of something alluring, only to find out that their hopes were deliberately misguided by the con-artist, who has replaced their desired object with something inferior that would not have drawn in the victim otherwise.
In this case, Ehrenreich explains, the “bait” is the prosperity of the American dream: pay your dues to society, study hard, forgo youthful indiscretions (or be quick to learn from them) and ye shall find your way to success and prosperity. The “switch” is the cold reality that white-collar middle-classed jobs have been commoditized to the point where “human resources” may as well mean “human chattel”. Gone are the days of 1950s-era pensions, single-company devotion, and long-term employment followed by autumn-year retirement.
In Nickel & Dimed, Ehrenreich explores the class of people (blue-collar workers) that are often marginalized because it is believed that they are in their predicament due to bad choices: impulsivity, laziness, irresponsibility. As a society, we have sold ourselves into the “work hard and you’ll be successful” idea as if it was a pure function: that the only thing holding you back from success is that you aren’t working hard enough. But in Bait & Switch, we see a class of people that did everything right: well-educated, hard-working people that rose through the ranks and suddenly had their career balloon popped through downsizing, streamlining, or whatever the current buzz word is for lay-offs.
Ehrenreich, adopting her maiden name Alexander, goes undercover as a middle-aged job-seeker wishing to join into the corporate world after freelancing for several years. Her ultimate goal is to secure a middle-class income ($50k-100k) at a private sector, regardless of who the employer is. At the risk of spoiling, she summarizes her journey best:
So, after almost seven months of job searching, an image makeover, an expensively refined and later upgraded resume, and networking in four cities, I have gotten exactly two offers: from AFLAC and Mary Kay. But these are not jobs, not in the way I defined a job when I started this project, in that no salary, benefits, or workplace is provided. … No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me. Is the fear that, if given health insurance for even a month, I will go on an orgy of body scans and elective surgery? The most any corporation seems willing to give me is the right to wear its logo on my chest and go about pushing its products. (p. 189)
But it would be completely unfair to say she was unsuccessful in her research; her journey of job exploration shines a high-powered spotlight on the trials and tribulations of the 8 million unemployed workers in America.
Discussion after the jump.