Bait and Switch: An Interview with Barbara Ehrenreich

The author of Nickel and Dimed explores the insecure world of white-collar work.

| Fri Sep. 9, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

In her latest book, Barbara Ehrenreich trades her Wal-Mart vest for a business suit. After exploring the world of dead-end minimum wage jobs in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich has set her sights higher on the career ladder in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, this time aiming to infiltrate the corner offices and listen in on the water cooler conversations of corporate America.

Her plan seemed attainable enough: get a top-notch career coach, sell herself to a range of companies, land a PR job with benefits, then reveal the dirty underside of the corporate world in her usual provocative fashion. Using her maiden name and a fake (but realistic) resume, Ehrenreich began drafting cover letters and posting her profile on Internet job sites. She attended career fairs in multiple cities, networked with job seekers and employers at churches and restaurants, and offered her services to dozens of companies. She hired two career coaches to guide her and underwent personality counseling. She even signed up for a “boot camp,” where coaches instructed her how to cover-up the “gap” on her resume, develop a three-minute personal “pitch” to beguile potential contacts in the elevator, and adopt a “winning attitude.”

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The only problem was, after ten months, thousands of dollars, and hours of exhaustive efforts, she never found a job. In the end, she was offered two commission-based positions, one selling car insurance, the other selling cosmetics, and neither offering benefits or a high enough salary to land her in the middle class. Ehrenreich couldn’t help but begin to take the rejection personally. Her commiserations with other increasingly desperate job seekers only added to her bitterness, and fueled her ideas on what’s to be done. While most of her criticism is aimed at the companies that suck the life from their employees before firing them, she also issues a call for action to the unemployed to rise up and organize. “No group is better situated,” she writes, “or perhaps better motivated, to lead the defense of the middle class than the unemployed.”

MotherJones recently spoke with Ehrenreich about her experience among the ranks of the white-collar unemployed.

Mother Jones: How did you conceive of the idea to research and write a book about the white-collar workforce?

Barbara Ehrenreich: The impetus came out of Nickel and Dimed. I get a lot of letters from people who are having major financial problems and it just began to strike me that many of them had college degrees, master’s degrees, and good, corporate jobs. But they lost a job at some point and never quite pulled themselves out of it. I became very curious about what’s going on in corporate America and what happens to these people. What happens when you lose a job? How do you go about trying to find one? And once I began to realize just how common these firings and layoffs are, I began wondering, why isn’t there more protest?

MJ: What were some of the things that you discovered during your job search that you felt people should be speaking out about?

BE: One is how common it is to be fired or laid off within corporate America. A number of people that I talked to seemed to have been doing very well when they were laid off. They had been praised; they had been promoted. If you’ve just been given a laudatory evaluation of your performance and then a week later you’re fired, what’s that about? That itself is disturbing. It creates a lot of anger and emotional hardship. People may become quite depressed. The psychological trauma of losing a job can be as great as the trauma of a divorce.

Then once you do lose a job, in whatever arbitrary fashion, there are not a lot of social supports for you. Our unemployment insurance benefits only last for 6 months now; it used to be 15 months. You lose health insurance because we have this absurd system in America where health insurance is usually tied to employment. Your income dips. Some people may have money saved to deal with a situation like this, but it doesn’t last forever. And that’s when you get into selling the house. Or, you turn to your parents. You think that parents might be the people who need help, but in our culture, it’s the older people who are increasingly propping up the generation of people in their 30s and 40s.

MJ: Why do you think that is? What is it about today’s economy that limits the opportunities available to younger generations?

BE: Well, the whole nature of corporate employment has changed very dramatically in the last 10 to 15 years. Employers have gone away from the idea that an employee is a long-term asset to the company, someone to be nurtured and developed, to a new notion that they are disposable. A research group found that 56 percent of major companies surveyed in the late ‘80s agreed that “employees who are loyal to the company and further its business goals deserve an assurance of continued employment.” A decade later only 6 percent agreed. It was in the ‘90s that companies started weeding people out as a form of cost reduction. That’s why the person who achieves more may be the most vulnerable to a layoff because he or she is now making enough money to look like a tempting target for cost cutters. One person recently told me about a boss saying to one of his employees, “You don’t want a raise; it’s like painting a target on your back.”

MJ: Do you think that what’s happening with the economy has been a natural consequence of globalization? Or do you think the government is somehow responsible for the evolution of harsher corporate policies?

BE: I think the big thing has been the failure of government to step in and provide some kind of cushion or social support for people who are being churned out of this increasingly jungle-like situation in corporate America. There’s no buffer, there’s nothing much that helps you beyond unemployment compensation and that doesn’t pay much, as I said before, that’s limited to six months.

MJ: At the beginning of the project, you hired several career coaches to help you design your resume and guide you in your search. What are your overall thoughts about job coaching?

BE: A lot of what was going on with my coaches was a complete and utter waste of time. First, they all want to do a personality test. My first thought was, “I already told you I’m a P.R. person, that’s what I do. So what if I have the personality of an embalmer?” In 1993, 89 of the Fortune top 100 companies were administering the Myers-Briggs test to their employees. The philosophy behind personality tests is that they don’t want you to be in the wrong kind of job. The tests have been completely exposed as nonsense. People take the test in the morning and then take it again in the afternoon and have a new personality. There’s a wonderful recent book, Cult of Personality by Annie Murphy Paul, who just goes through how it’s ridiculous.

MJ: Do you think that job coaching is an element of the current job market that’s going to fade out as times change?

BE: The thing is, whether it works or not is not what determines whether it fades out or not. It’s something that builds on anxiety, and as long as you have anxiety, people will look anywhere for solutions.

MJ: You went to several networking conferences, advertised as secular events, that turned out to be very religious in nature. Do you think these situations also play on job seekers’ anxiety?

BE: Yes, I think it’s a great recruiting ploy to go after people who are very anxious or depressed; those are good people to try to convert. What bothered me was that I did not like being lured to a meeting with the idea that it was going to help me with job searching and then find out it was really about proselytizing. I can’t be the only non-Christian who falls into that situation. What bothered me even more than that--and even more than the fact that most of these were a total waste of time in terms of job searching--was the kind of casual homophobia and anti-Semitism that I encountered in these settings, where a guy in the front of the room would make some joke about Jews or gays and everybody would laugh heartily. I wanted to get out of there.

At another level, philosophically what offended me about these religious meetings was the cheapened version of religion that they present. At one of these church meetings we were advised to “network with the Lord.” What kind of deity is that? You go up to him and ask him for a job tip? They have drained any majesty and mystery from religion, any religion, and turned their god into this sort of busybody who’s always micromanaging your career.

MJ: Even though you were unable to find a job, do you feel your experience in looking for one somehow reflects the corporate culture of today?

BE: I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I wondered if I was just seeing strange, bizarre, marginal things, and what makes me think not is, for one thing, a lot of the coaches and networking leaders are usually veterans of the corporate world themselves. Two, corporations will bring in career coaches to work over executives’ personalities that aren’t quite right or they’ll hire them themselves for that kind of thing. Then if you look at the business advice books, which I drew on for my research, they have blurbs by current CEOs. In all of my interactions, I encountered the same kind of ideologies, so I don’t think there’s a difference here [between my job search and the corporate world].

MJ: What were the difficulties you encountered explaining the “gap” on your resume?

BE: In the final version of my resume, I wrote that for the last three years I had been working as a “consultant.” I thought that that was perfectly respectable, but I’m afraid the employers interpret a consultancy as unemployment. And the Catch-22 is that it’s harder to get a job if you’ve been unemployed.

MJ: The gap wasn’t always listed as a consultancy, though.

BE: At first I said that part of the gap was due to homemaking, before I changed my resume to reduce it. I thought there would be some kind of sympathy for that. But at group coaching sessions, there were shudders, as if I said I’d spent my life collecting welfare. That is very disturbing when you read about this new supposed trend of successful young women professionals who drop out of the workforce while their kids are small and think they’re going to go whizzing right back in. That five-year gap could be fatal. There’s no question those women are going to face serious problems.

MJ: In the end, why do you think you were not able to find a job?

BE: I think mainly because it’s just hard to find jobs. Looking back, I think that there were things I could have done differently; ways I could have made my resume more attractive. But I heard the same story from so many people that you put your resume up on those job boards on the Internet and you wait. And wait. And nothing happens. The internet was supposed to make this whole business of job searching rational and simple. You could post your resume and companies would search them and they’d find you. It doesn’t seem to work that way. There aren’t enough jobs for experienced, college educated managers and professionals.

MJ: Nickel and Dimed was met with great acclaim. It was made into a play and is required reading in many university courses. What do you hope to achieve with Bait and Switch?

BE: I would like to start a discussion up among people who are unemployed or insecurely and anxiously employed about what’s going on and what can we do about it. There is quite a large constituency that could work to have better financial supports for unemployed people, extend unemployment insurance, and universal health insurance. Beyond that, I think people who have been jerked around by the corporate world might want to start talking about corporate governance. Who’s making these decisions? Is the practice of constantly getting rid of people really any way to run a business?

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