No Help Wanted

Barbara Ehrenreich says
Barbara Ehrenreich says "Bait and Switch" was inspired by letters from people who have done everything right and still can't find stable jobs. (By Jay Paul For The Washington Post)
By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 7, 2005

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va.--Maybe it was the missing lapel pin that doomed Barbara Ehrenreich's search.

She couldn't get a job and she couldn't figure out why. She'd hired job coaches, haunted Internet job boards, endlessly massaged her résumé and networked, networked, networked. She'd paid an "image management" consultant to help her upgrade her wardrobe.

But she never got around to replacing her sedate silver pin -- deemed "not corporate" by her clothing guru -- with the recommended gold.

Well, fine. Her job search flameout wasn't such a big deal personally, though she confesses that not being wanted by anyone was a little hard to take. But Ehrenreich knew that when she finished researching "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream" -- a Dantesque tour through the world of the white-collar unemployed for which she posed as an out-of-work professional -- she'd have a well-established career as an independent writer to go back to.

The beaten-down, middle-aged job seekers she encountered along the way, however, lack the luxury of such a fallback position. And as for still-employed fiftysomethings, fortysomethings and thirtysomethings who will likely make up much of her book's readership, Ehrenreich's failure story is a chiller.

She might as well have called it "This Could Happen to You."

'How Does Anyone Live?'

"Bait and Switch" is the second of what you might call Ehrenreich's walk-a-mile-in-my-shoes series. For the first, the 2001 bestseller "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," she cast herself as a member of the working poor. She took a series of minimum-wage jobs, tried to live on her meager earnings and produced what one reviewer called a "heart-wrenching, infuriating, funny, smart and empowering" report on a universe that comfortable, affluent Americans tend not to see.

It wasn't her idea to turn into Barbara Ehrenreich, Undercover Reporter. Well, actually it was -- sort of. But we'll get to that.

She's a small, fit-looking woman of 64 with sensibly short hair that hasn't been permitted to go gray. She moved from Florida to Charlottesville after her daughter, a University of Virginia law professor, produced her first grandchild four years ago. (There are now two.) "They're a big drug," she says. "I get completely involved with whatever they're looking at or doing." When daughter and family head to Georgetown for a visiting professorship this fall, Ehrenreich -- who is divorced and says "all I need is a laptop" to work -- will tag along.

It would be a mistake, however, to push this cuddly image too far.

There is a tough, sarcastic edge to Ehrenreich's writing and conversation. Her laughter sometimes comes in flat, staccato bursts -- heh-heh-heh-heh -- that seem to say: Watch out, I see right through you. Describing her father, who started as a Montana copper miner and rose to be vice president for research at Gillette, she calls him "an extremely unusual person, smart and ambitious." She also says, "He was a genius; he told us that himself," and notes that he was eventually destroyed by drink.

His daughter is no slouch herself in the smart-and-ambitious department.

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