Bait and Switch
by Barbara Ehrenreich, reading at the Bagdad Theater, 3702 SE Hawthorne, Tuesday Sept 20, 7 pm, free
All Barbara Ehrenreich wants is a white-collar job at 50k a year plus benefits. And so, 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 is simple: Land a corporate job and report from within.
Alas, nothing is ever so simple. Ehrenreich changes her name, acquires a separate checking account, and concocts a bogus resume. She even employs a dreamless team of job coaches who, for $200 an hour, provide useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), resume formatting advice, and personality tests.
After a year, however, the best she can muster are gigs pimping the respective fruits of AFLAC and Mary Kay. As both are independent contractor jobs, she opts to pass. Given this failure, Bait and Switch is not an up close and personal expose of corporate America as much as a politicized job seeker's diary.
While Ehrenreich ventures to job coaching sessions, executive boot camps, and a host of networking events at chain restaurants and evangelical churches, she's never in a position to observe her fellow job seekers over the long term. What's missing in "on the job" immediacy, however, is occasionally 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 get you in the door. No one expects you to be passionate about the drive-thru window. Not so in the white-collar world, where employers demand an almost spiritual calling for work that does little more than gnaw the soul.
"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? In order to write with authority one has to spend real time with people inside their institutions. Ehrenreich doesn't 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.