Reading List: Bait and Switch

The author of Nickel and Dimed takes on the white-collar world.

Bait and Switch

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan Books, September 2005, 256 pp., $24


If Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 guided tour through the hell of blue-collar poverty, Nickel and Dimed, owed anything to Dante’s Inferno, then this year’s journey into the “shadowy world” of white-collar unemployment, Bait and Switch, is a modern-day Purgatorio. Trading her waitress’s apron for a pantsuit, Ehrenreich goes undercover as an unemployed PR consultant seeking a job in the corporate ranks.

Fittingly, the author’s out-of-work colleagues in the book are little more than disenchanted shades. Lurking in one coaching meeting, unemployed “James” welcomes us to “the land of the undead.” We meet “Neal,” “Hilary,” and a motley crew of others, all fighting a losing battle with rejection. To empathize and assimilate with them, Ehrenreich finds that she too must “go through a kind of death.”

Meanwhile, what would an underworld be without its demons? Preying on the armies of “sad-faced” job seekers are profiteering charlatans–pricey image-management specialists, résumé consultants, and “transition accelerants” (career coaches). Ehrenreich excoriates them all, reserving her most scathing criticisms for coaches, who, in Bait and Switch, peddle pop-psych blither and drain their clients’ savings with costly executive boot camps. With such poor guides, it’s no surprise Ehrenreich’s white-collar wanderers fare so poorly.

Bait and Switch is at its best when Ehrenreich drops her Michael Moore-like pandering (she actually uses the phrase “the man”) and lets her observations speak for themselves. Being unemployed is devastating, and she does a sound job reminding us of the emotional toll. We witness desperate job seekers bursting into spontaneous crying jags, and networking mavens, some barely employed themselves, offering raw displays of insecurity.

Where does all this pathos get us? Ehrenreich does make a halfhearted call for the unemployed middle class to “band together and defend their jobs,” but it’s almost an afterthought. Sure, Ehrenreich’s trip through purgatory does give us entertaining reminders of what not to do (like, say, hire a transition accelerant). But given the subject, she leaves some glaring holes. Where is the chapter on offshoring? How about a counterpoint from a few of the gainfully employed who–gasp!–actually like their jobs? Though Ehrenreich gets our attention, her omissions are striking. If she’s seeking to stir up the bourgeoisie, she’ll have to settle for stirring up their cocktail-party chatter instead.

Read about other recommended books this month.