Sunday, August 5, 2007

Bait and Switch, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch follows on the heels of Nickel and Dimed. It's been out for a while now but I only recently got a copy.

Ehrenreich, a journalist, has a way of transforming personal experiences into much bigger themes, while avoiding any obvious attempts at generalizing. Her writing is simple, straightforward, free of jargon and full of humor. In Bait and Switch, as in Nickel and Dimed, she goes undercover, but this time in the world of middle- and upper-management.

She describes her efforts to present herself to the corporate world as an out-of-work PR person, so that she can see first-hand what the laid-off white-collar worker faces. She changes her name legally and gives herself ten months, with the goal of spending the first four to six seeking work and the remaining time actually working. What she finds goes beyond the general confines of her quest.

I could read a thick scholarly book, full of citations (Ehrenreich does sprinkle her text with many footnotes) and reports of major studies, and learn just about exactly what Ehrenreich learns first-hand. True, her own experiences are not statistically meaningful, but she reinforces them with her background reading. So we get a highly-readable, funny, thought-provoking book that we can zip through in one or two days that summarizes the theses of several others in the process. It's compact reading. And if we want to pursue any of these themes in greater detail, the references are there. I have already put a few on my wish list.

In her quest, Ehrenreich comes face-to-face with career counselors, networking sessions, job fairs, career workshops, online connections, and very few actual corporate representatives. She learns how easy it is to waste thousands of dollars and have nothing to show for it except a different "look" and echoes of the constant exhortation that she must be upbeat and positive at all times.

She learns that everyone is selling the same thing: the idea that you, and you alone, are responsible for how well you do. By the end, she begs to differ.

Ehrenreich ends the book with a conclusion that brings it all together and suggests how out-of-work white collar workers might focus on making a bigger change in their world, one that might bring some sanity back to the corporate workplace.

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