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Barbara Ehrenreich, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005, $24.00, 237 pages, ISBN 0-8050-7606-9)—Gregory J. Hollyfield, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris


Why most reviews of Barbara Ehrenreich's latest book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, seem to focus on the passage in which she details her (short) encounter with coaching techniques that center on Wizard of Oz archetypes is anathema. It is not so surprising to see popular culture images being used as metaphors for complex abstract ideas such as "mental, [...] emotional [and] instinctual" [19] intelligence and personality types. Perhaps many critics, after having found a good sound bite within the first 40 pages of the book stopped dead on their journey along the yellow brick corporate road before reaching the Emerald City itself. The two most interesting points in Ehrenreich's undercover journalistic experience are not mentioned in most reviews.

After having read about Ehrenreich's experience, two points stand out above and beyond coaching with doll: 1) the amazing amount of self-created importance that white-collar executives have spun for themselves, and 2) the very real financial cost that "consultants" [44], freelance workers for the layperson, "in transition", unemployed for the layperson, have to pay for this hubris.

Ehrenreich's objective is clear enough " to find a job, a "good" job [and] a white collar position that would provide health insurance and an income of about $50,000 a year" [6]. In pursuit of this objective, Ehrenreich followed three simple rules:


1) Do everything possible to land the job, 2) Be prepared to go anywhere for a job or even an interview, and advertise this geographical flexibility in [...] contacts with potential employers, and 3) Take the first job [and] offered that met [these] requirements [11].


Ehrenreich recognizes her own prejudices:


The decision to enter corporate life—and an unfamiliar sector of it, at that—required that I abandon, or at least set aside, deeply embedded attitudes and views, including my long-standing critique of American corporations and the people who lead them [and] Like it or not, the corporation is the dominant unit of the global economy and the form of enterprise that our lives depend on un a day-to-day sense [7].


This eerie statement echoes what Joel Bakan says about corporations in his 2004 work The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power:


Today, corporations govern our lives. They determine what we eat, what we watch, what we wear, where we work, and what we do. We are inescapably surrounded by their culture, iconography, and ideology. And, like the church and the monarchy in other times, they posture as infallible and omnipotent, glorifying themselves in imposing buildings and elaborate displays [5].


Furthermore, much like she did in her former best seller, Nickel and Dimed: On (not) Getting by in America, Ehrenreich openly admits that her research "would not be an altogether fair test of the job market" [8]; however, just because her research could not be considered "fair" for various reasons including her age and lack of experience—both handicaps in the corporate world, what Ehrenreich discovered about life as a white-collar working in transition is valid. If Ehrenreich is living a parallel life for research purposes, the downtrodden people whom she meets during the experience are not in this precarious, hand-to-mouth situation as a means for writing a book.

Whether Ehrenreich's experience reflects her own preconceived notions of what corporate life is, or is not, is arguable. However, what is less debatable, at least in Ehrenreich's case, is the value that self-created importance, based on fakery or lies, has taken on in the corporate world. This "illusion is everything" notion is not so surprising in the corporate world; one only needs to think of Enron or WorldCom for further proof of this slogan in action within the corporate milieu.

When Ehrenreich solicits the help of a résumé writing coach, she quickly learns that "fakery [...] may just be the essence of résumé writing" [28]. While Ehrenreich does learn some interesting tips from Joanne, her résumé writing coach, e.g. one is not a freelance worker but a consultant, Ehrenreich learns more about "how to lie [...] is part of the game [...] Deception is part of the game" [39]. Ehrenreich even credits Kimberly, her personality coach, with "the requisite phoniness" [53] needed to be successful in the business world.

Lying in the corporate world extends beyond the use of euphemisms on one's résumé; it is a pillar of the much lauded ability to network too. In this case, Ehrenreich is not the only person bothered by this world of illusions; even a fellow consultant in transition bemoans" 'the whole networking thing: It feels so fake to me'" [62]. And networking, much like one's résumé, as Ehrenreich learns, needs to be customized, thus entailing a cost, which when the process is suspiciously "artificially prolonged" [56], may "border[s] on fraud" [88]. As if the whole networking front were not phony enough with its mini-gurus et al, even the places where these networking powwows take place are artificial with "Fake ivy on the trellises" [100] and "artificial air and light"[157].

If pushed to its logical limits, "fake" or at least pseudo-scientific means are even employed to evaluate one's personality type, which in turn is a determining factor in finding the right job. The "meaningless personality tests" [34], the Wagner Enneagram Personality Style Scales (WEPSS), a "pastiche of wispy New Age yearnings for some mystic unity underlying the disorder of human experiences" [33], and the Myers-Biggs Type Indicator "lend[s] a superficial rationality to the matching of people with jobs" [34].

Moreover, seemingly scientific formulae and "fuzzy math" are also used fraudulently in the corporate world- and not just in Enron's book keeping. When one of the "power of positive thinking" networking gurus needs to justify his theory that "there is a kind of gravitational force connecting our thoughts to their real-world fulfillments." Whenever you think something, the thought immediately attracts its physical equivalent" [82], he does so by telling Ehrenreich that "F= GM1M2/R2" [82]. This mumbo jumbo supposedly demonstrates how:


M's are the masses of the two attracting objects, G is the gravitational constant and R is the distance between them. Obviously, as R', say the distance between you and the money [always the corporate objective] gets smaller, F, the force attracting the money gets radically larger" [83].


As Ehrenreich puts it, this "weird science" [84] is just justification for explaining the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers [85]. This idea is compatible with the "long-standing American idea [...] that circumstances count for nothing compared to the power of the individual will" [81], which in turn may have a calming effect on American "Calvinist angst" [46].

Calming Americans' Calvinist angst also comes at a price. Ehrenreich had initially set aside $5,000 for her ten-month project. The WEPSS test and professional evaluation of her results set her back $60. Kimberly, her personality coach agreed "to a weekly half-hour session by phone for $400 a month, or $200 an hour" [21]. Based on Kimberly's profession assessment of Ehrenreich, Ehrenreich needed "three months of coaching" [23], meaning $1,200. In accordance with her first rule for the experiment, "doing everything possible" more, the group Forty-plus suggested that Ehrenreich attend its 3-week, 8 hour a day boot camp for $600; however, Ehrenreich settled on a shorter crash course which was less expensive, but involved flying from Virginia to Atlanta, which according to her "isn't cheap [$179 we eventually learn], especially when you factor in airfare and a night in a hotel, but the difference between 7 hours and the 120-hour commitment required by Forty-plus is compelling" [63].

Ehrenreich continued to incur very real costs all along her journey as a "consultant in transition." After having paid $150 to join the executive website, seminars were then offered to the members for $35 each. At other free of charge events for "white-collar workers in transition" that she attended, the speakers encouraged the people attending to buy their motivational audio-visual recordings. Ehrenreich was informed that she may want to rethink her image. A makeover set her back $250 , plus the $55.50 worth of cosmetics that she also bought, and the $160 worth of new clothes [123] to go with her new look. Needless to say, after four months of researching, she had spent "almost $4,000" [121], or 80 percent of her budget with more than half the experiment to go. Ehrenreich had to curb her spending, but the opportunities to spend, from headhunting agencies to pyramidal schemes, kept presenting themselves to her. By the end of her adventure, Ehrenreich had spent more than $6,000 in her futile search for "a good job."

As Ehrenreich reminds us:


For those who can't afford to be fussy about status or pay, there are of course plenty of jobs in America [...] Even in the absences of new job creation, high turnover in the low-wage job sector guarantees a steady supply of openings to the swift and the desperate. To white-collar job seekers, these are known as "survival jobs"—something to do while waiting for a "real" job to come along [203].


However, these "survival" jobs, more often than not, do not give way to anything bigger and better, at least in Ehrenreich's research. After finishing her research, but before writing the book, she contacted the people whom she had met during the course of her research. Eleven of them responded to her, and none had found a "real" job. One can just hope, for their sake, that they had not spent $6,000 (that they did not have) on phoniness and the tomfoolery of snake oil salesmen.

Some may find Ehrenreich's research to be reductive, too simple, or formulaic. While there may be some truth to these accusations, Barbara Ehrenreich remains one of the few journalists in the United States willing to take on Wal-Mart as well as the "good old boys" in the board room (and, by and large, the people she encounters in the networking sessions are mostly men). Ehrenreich's writing style is straightforward and a pleasure to read without insulting either the GED or the Ph.D. candidate. In conclusion, this book should be required reading in sectors of activity as diverse as colleges of businesses, journalism or social work, and for all CEOs and shareholders, not to mention for "consultants" be they in "transition" or not.

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