Saturday, June 30, 2012

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich

I’m a huge fan of Barbara Ehrenreich and bought this book because I knew I’d enjoy it. And I did! I read most of it on an 11-hr train journey from Wellington to Auckland. I feel like Barbara and I would be really good friends. I feel as though we’re ‘on the same side’ in life—her values and ideas seem to mirror mine and she articulates many of the things I feel. Her 2009 expose of ‘positive thinking’ and its detrimental effects on US society, Bright-sided, for example, gave language to what I (and many others, it would appear) had been feeling for years regarding the positive thinking boom. I was so, so glad that she wrote Bright-sided.

Bait and Switch is an investigation into the situation of unemployed white collar workers, with a focus on the corporate and financial sectors. Barbara (I’m going to call her Barbara because I feel like she’s my friend. Also, it’s easier to spell.) goes undercover to look for a work, much like she did in her best-selling Nickel and Dimed, where she explored the world of the working poor in the US. For Bait and Switch, she created a partially fictional resume, but had to maintain elements of her real employment history so she could apply for work she was actually qualified for. Over the course of about a year, she could not find any work in her chosen field, which was PR.  

This book was criticised for being unrealistic and for the experiment being shoddily prepared for and carried out. I suppose this criticism is founded, because she certainly seemed completely clueless, whereas you would think that unemployed white collar workers would have a better idea of how to go about seeking work in their industry. She was, after all, looking for work in a field she had never worked in (therefore with no connections, and no real knowledge about where to look).

Nevertheless, she does well to illuminate the bizarre industry of career coaching and gives readers a glimpse into the depressing world of people (usually over the age of 35) who, having been ‘let go’, cannot find work despite having years of experience and a university education. She goes to numerous meetings for the ostensible purpose of ‘networking’, but which end up being classroom situations where by the unemployed sit listening to a career coach telling them, in impenetrable jargon, what they need to do to become more employable. Most of the industry is infused with positive thinking style mumbo jumbo that individualises people’s problems and places the blame for long-term unemployment squarely on the job-seeker’s shoulders. If they change their attitude, they will surely get a job.

One of Barbara’s main points was that the reality that working-class people have always lived with is now a reality for many of the middle-class. Put simply, that reality is: working really hard does not mean you’ll be rewarded. The belief that hard work will eventually result in a lifestyle that will enable you to relax and enjoy the fruits of your labour is a deeply entrenched assumption of the middle-class, originating from a Protestant work ethic, according to Barbara. This assumption, which lies at the foundation of the middle-class existence, is crumbling and the emotional and psychological repercussions on individuals, is enormous. How did this come about? Corporations seem no longer to see employees as people who deserve respect and dignity as whole human beings (with families, loved ones, lives outside work), or as long-term investments that will actually benefit the company, but as interchangeable objects of productivity.

“Organizations that used to see people as long-term assets to be nurtured and developed now see people as short-term costs to be reduced… [T]hey view people as “things” that are but one variable in the production equation, “things” that can be discarded when the profit and loss numbers do not come out as desired” (David Noer, cited in Bait and Switch, p. 225)

Towards the end of the book Barbara argues that university professors, doctors, lawyers and teachers do not face the same kind of situation as corporate workers because they are professionalised and therefore sell their skill as opposed to themselves, which is what corporate workers ultimately have to do. As I was reading this book, however, I was struck by the feelings of worthlessness and lack of dignity that many corporate workers she wrote about feel…these are exactly the same feelings that casual academics experience. That she failed to mention the plight of casual and/or short-term contracted academics, while shedding light on how wonderful it is to be a professor, was extremely disappointing. The precarious nature of work facing those in academia right now is no different to the situation of those in the corporate world. The pain and confusion of not being wanted or needed despite having spent years and years devoting oneself to the field is real, regardless of industry. The next book Barbara writes should be about this.


  1. Great review Em's! I haven't read the book, but based on your review I think Barbara could do with making that link that all careers seem to be touched by neoliberalism. Careers in academia and sport are becoming (have become?) like jobs in the white-collar corporate world. Quantifiable performance outputs, selling of oneself, etc. It would have also been useful if she talked about how the increase in competition results in increased practices of nepotism which I can definitely see in academia.
    Keep up these great reviews!

    1. Thanks for your comment K. I agree totally that this sort of precarious employment now characterises virtually all industries. Nepotism in academia, eh? Like couples getting jobs at the same uni?