Is the American Dream an Illusion?Published: March 08, 2006 in Knowledge@Emory
Acclaimed author, journalist, and social critic Barbara Ehrenreich admits to being out of touch with the corporate world. In books and articles, she routinely covers the plight of the underclass, profiling low-income workers in the U.S. and abroad. In her 2001 best-selling and acclaimed Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, she goes undercover as a retail clerk, nursing home aide, and as a waitress, struggling to exist on a minimum wage salary. Ehrenreich provides a first-hand account of the plight of America’s working poor— the lack of health insurance, the battle to find affordable housing, the demands of backbreaking labor, and the pressure of maintaining more than one job. Though not an unfamiliar story, her scathing exposé sparkles due to the author’s adept prose and ability to offer direct analysis of the unfolding circumstances.
In her latest work, Bait & Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich once again goes undercover. But instead of investigating the poor and working class, she delves into the struggles of downsized white-collar professionals. The author manufactures a life as a divorced professional out on the job search—a woman who is 40-years-old and currently out of work after a string of consulting positions in the PR and marketing fields. Later on in the book, Ehrenreich improves on her assumed persona to indicate that she previously held in-house PR/marketing and university teaching positions.
The poor and downtrodden didn’t opt for the college degree, or they may have gotten waylaid by early pregnancy or a bevy of social ills, says Ehrenreich. But, America’s white-collar employees believed in the unwritten social pact. If they simply did the “right thing,” then they would be rewarded. Arbitrary firings, outsourcing, and corporate cost-cutting measures resulting in mass layoffs simply weren’t a part of the bargain. She notes that white-collar professionals now represent a growing proportion of the unemployed, unlike prior economic downturns. In turn, Ehrenreich chooses the assumed persona to discover if there is a correct route to career success.
The book opens with a scathing critique of career coaches. For those in the profession and with a smidgen of work ethic, it may be best to skip this particular chapter. (The coaches appear to be between jobs as well, opting for coaching to fill in their résumé gap.) The author is entertaining when she picks apart her expensive sessions with two career coaches and a résumé advisor. She receives generic advice based on well-known career personality tests that offer little more than general, cryptic, and often slogan-oriented messages. Expending cash at a time of unemployment might seem like the most ridiculous thing to do, she notes, but many unemployed white-collar professionals do just that. These are people interested in taking every opportunity out there. That’s what they were taught and conditioned to do, she reminds us.
Ehrenreich is downright cynical about the desire to follow suit and maintain the professional polish, coming off as too anti-establishment at times. Yet, she starts to sound as if her discouragement might be genuine and not merely the stuff of a liberal pundit. As her résumés go unanswered, she tells of her new cohorts—individuals tossed aside after years of dedicated service to a large company. These are people chipping away at life savings and their self-confidence. Job searches go on for six months and sometimes a year or more. Many of the people who Ehrenreich encounters end up taking employment for a pay cut, a loss of benefits, or opt for a more unpredictable consulting path. (She notes that in 2004 an unemployed person could expect four months on the job search before finding another position.)
The author applies for over 200 relevant positions with only one acknowledgement card to show for it. Her search lasts months and garners only one interview, as it turns out, for an unpaid sales training position for AFLAC. She must purchase the necessary training books and recruit additional sales staff, in addition to selling their insurance products, in order to get a commission. Health benefits aren’t a consideration. She warns that many unemployed white-collar professionals find their career path limited to commission-sales jobs, franchise opportunities, and consulting posts, not ideally suited to their skills set. (Of course, Ehrenreich’s fictitious status doesn’t allow her the opportunity to network with any real former clients or colleagues, and so she is without this one safety net that a flesh and blood employee might have.) Nonetheless, the outlook and outcome for the “real” people that she meets still seems quite dire.
Miraculously, Ehrenreich’s résumé is made near perfect just about the same time she advises the résumé coach that she can no longer afford to pay her for the sessions. When the author worries her age may be the reason for the lack of job responses, a career coach advises her to think younger and to remove graduation dates from the résumé. An image specialist prescribes expensive makeup he sells. The coaches merely dish out what appears to be obvious information, advising her to seek out networking sessions and to change her demeanor to that of someone with a more winning attitude.
While no employment offers ever materialize from the networking sessions, she does get a chance to hear the struggles of similarly positioned and unemployed white-collar professionals. (She even fends off what appears to be a pickup attempt.) A number of the networking events turn out to be opportunities for paid coaching. Attendees joke about the use of antidepressants and talk about structuring a day made up of job searching and exercise to replace a day of work. It seems everyone has advice, but it fails to console (or employ) the forlorn. Even networking sessions sponsored by religious groups fail to fill the literal and figurative hole that being unemployed leaves. After attending one such event, she observes that the attendees bore “the same dogged, passive expression I’ve learned to associate with job seekers everywhere.”
Ehrenreich puts her résumé on such popular job boards as Monster.com and HotJobs. These posts go unanswered short of a suspicious e-mail offer for a modeling assignment and a flurry of promises for “executive job search” help. A job fair with well-known corporate names in attendance doesn’t work out much better. A familiar face from a networking event lets her know that job fairs are truly only for the entry-level worker. Despite the futility of attendance, he returns to local job fairs so he can say that he’s actually done something in the day. While job offers for the unemployed white-collar professional may not be in great supply, depression seems to be widely available, and Ehrenreich makes it clear here.
Whether the reader can agree with her liberal leanings in the book doesn’t seem to matter. At the end of Bait and Switch she has no specific answer for the crisis in Corporate America. She advises unemployed white-collar workers to mobilize, join together, and demand better treatment. Outsourcing may be a legitimate company strategy, she argues, but it certainly is a kick in the face to train the foreign worker who replaces you. Here, the author’s intent is to make the issue a personal one. Downsizing might be needed if consumer tastes do change and sales drop, but the process of job cutting to boost shareholder value is an evil practice, admonishes Ehrenreich. While there are examples of companies that look to expand their enterprises in a more organic fashion—thinking up new products and services and grooming staffers to embrace the company vision—the author doesn’t mention or even acknowledge this virtuous path. Ehrenreich is more aware, as we all are, of the less benevolent and numbers-driven firm—the company handlng out excessive CEO salaries while simultaneously trimming middle management positions.
What is clear is that the times in Corporate America have changed, and the loyalty expected of a company to its middle management employees is no longer a reality. But “lean and mean” eventually undermines the company, says Ehrenreich, “as more and more work is left to the exhausted, insecure survivors” of corporate layoffs. Her book is meant to champion the “high achievers who ran into trouble precisely because they had risen far enough in the company for their salaries to look like a tempting cost cut.” The author merely seeks to strike a chord with a growing sector of the U.S. workforce—the highly trained, skilled, and yet, unemployed professional dealing with downward mobility and the resulting “sense of failure, rejection, and shame.”