by John Dicker & r & Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich & r & All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job at $50K a year plus benefits. Yeah, well, join a little club called "America," honey. In Bait and Switch, this veteran social critic deploys the same undercover approach as her bestselling Nickel and Dimed to explore life in Dilbert Country. Her goal: Land a corporate job and report from within.
Alas, few things are so simple. Ehrenreich changes her name, opens a checking account and concocts a bogus resume. She even employs a team of job coaches who, for a mere $200 an hour, provide useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resume advice and personality tests. After a year, however, the best she can muster are spots pimping the respective fruits of AFLAC (quack!) and Mary Kay.
While Ehrenreich ventures out to job coaching sessions, executive boot camps and a host of networking events at exurban chain restaurants and evangelical churches, she's never in a position to observe other job seekers over the long term. What's missing in "on the job" immediacy, however, is sometimes made up for in analysis. Take her distinction between blue- and white-collar job hunting. In the former, a pulse and a drug test can usually get you through the door. No one expects anyone to be passionate about servicing the drive-thru window. Not so in the corporate America, where employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that often does little but gnaw the soul.
For Ehrenreich, the rise in white-collar unemployment, the downsizing, the offshoring all amounts to a shattering of a social contract understood by generations of Americans. That is, work hard, remain loyal to the company and be rewarded with security. The irony here is palpable; where dissident intellectuals once lamented the conformist oppression both meted out and endured by incarnations of "the man in the gray flannel suit," now it seems they'd line his return path with lotuses.
"Undercover" journalism is often criticized by the trade's purists. If you lie to get access, why should anyone believe the rest of your story? Let's bypass this discussion and criticize it from another vantage point: In order to write with authority, one has to spend real time with people inside their institutions. Ehrenreich doesn't even come close, and as a result Bait and Switch is incomplete. It's hardly thoughtless, just not what it bills itself as. Covers notwithstanding, sometimes you can judge a book by its title.