White-collar blues and the vanishing American dream

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream By Barbara Ehrenreich Henry Holt and Co., 2005, Hardcover, 237 pp., $24

After writing her book-length description of surviving on a minimum wage in “Nickel and Dimed,” Barbara Ehrenreich has now turned her attention to the plight of unemployed middle-class white collar employees in “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.”

The author explains that around 2002 she first heard stories of unemployed white-collar employees in dire circumstances. She adds that these were persons who had been “members in good standing of the middle class,” who had done everything right, i.e., achievers who had earned higher degrees in management and finance and their salaries rose to the point where they became “a tempting cost cut.” Now, many have become losers who have fallen into poverty and become “a rude finger in the face of the American dream.”

Today, white-collar insecurity grows as jobs are cut, either for budget reasons, or shifted overseas to lower-paid white-collar workers in Third World countries. Many workers here who retain their jobs are subject to fewer benefits, longer work days, 10 to 12 hours in some cases, and the threat of layoffs, which are “like a perverse form of natural selection, weeding out the talented and successful as well as the mediocre.”

In an attempt to better understand their plight, Ehrenreich undertook a job search. Her goal: $50,000 per year and health benefits and no restriction on location. The author actually looked forward to an easier time than living on a minimum wage and was rudely surprised. She rapidly discovered an entire industry that has grown around white-collar unemployment, including job coaches, some charging as much as $200 per hour.

Questionnaires and tests abound, nearly all without any scientific basis, and are used by job search counselors and employers alike.

Ehrenreich chastises the “blame the victim” philosophy that permeates career workshops, seminars, counseling, and job search literature. The line says that we are responsible for “everything that occurs to us,” and the unemployed are told that they need a winning or positive attitude. The author exclaims, “It seems mercilessly cruel to tell the people who have reached some kind of personal nadir that their problem is entirely of their own making.” This viewpoint, she adds, is very convenient for those with power who occupy the high-paying jobs. It is a “flattering way” to explain the success of the so-called winners while “invalidating the complaints of the losers.”

The above approach is used nearly everywhere that she went. On one occasion, Ehrenreich explains how persons came to a session prepared to blame their misfortunes on different factors such as the economy, inhumane corporate demands on their time, etc. They were steered away from such a discussion and thinking, and they were told, “It’s not the world that needs changing … it’s you” — the pro-corporate way of viewing their situation. “It is their fault, no one else’s.”

Ehrenreich discovered a rather ominous aspect of the modern job search — the active role played by fundamentalist religion. In recent years, there has been a massive growth in the overlap between business and religion, and thousands of businesses reportedly now have prayer groups and ministries. The author discovered that some churches were using networking events for the unemployed as opportunities for proselytizing. She concludes that maybe one of the functions of the religious revival sweeping America “is to conciliate people to an increasingly unreliable work world; you take what you can get, and praise the Lord for sending it along.”

Ehrenreich describes the futility and lack of return for most of her job search efforts. It is rare to even be contacted about a job. She laments about the “unshakable, godlike, magisterial indifference of the corporate world — that drives my fellow job-seekers to despair.” Finally, the author is offered a job, an insurance sales job with AFLAC, the company with the television commercials featuring an AFLAC-quacking duck. With the job, the insurance company offers the following: no salary, no benefits, no office, and no phones. She reports that AFLAC’s offer is somewhat standard for a “non-standard” employment market that employs over 30 percent of the American workforce. The author also reports that there are tens of thousands of jobs “like this available to corporate rejects and malcontents.” These jobs without benefits and with weak bonds to employers are being filled by a growing number of former corporate employees, managers, and professionals.

She finally throws in the towel after seven months and two job offers: AFLAC and a cosmetics firm. Ehrenreich describes herself as being “overwhelmed by a sense of futility,” and later learns that most of her fellow job seekers she had encountered gave up and settled for minimal survival jobs. And as the book describes it, a formerly upward mobile American middle-class continues its slide downward, and in many cases, into poverty-level existence.

In concluding, the author describes briefly what she learned from her experience and observes, “Something has happened that cuts deep into the social contract that holds us together.” Americans have been raised to believe that “hard work will be rewarded with comfort and security,” but this is no longer true. Many middle-class Americans are sinking into the ranks of those with lower income. Ehrenreich concludes, “If anyone can testify credibly to the disappearance of the American dream, it is the white-collar unemployed — the people who ‘played by the rules,’ ‘did everything right,’ and still ended up in ruin.”