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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)

She was wrong.

Deciding to begin by hiring a "career coach" -- she'd been freelancing all her life, after all, and was a little weak on corporate job-hunting skills -- she found herself in the bizarre world of the "transition" industry, whose self-appointed experts spice up their coaching presentations with Elvis dolls and characters from "The Wizard of Oz."

She paid one coach $200 an hour to polish her résumé, only to notice that, somehow, the job was never quite finished. "The white-collar unemployed have become a market," Ehrenreich explains, because unlike their blue-collar counterparts, they have assets -- at least for a while.

Before long, other coaches were bombarding her with dubious tests -- of the same type used by many personnel departments -- designed to reveal her personality type and what kind of job would be right for her. The results were mixed, to put it mildly. It was nice to hear that one test scored her as "original, effective, good and loving." But the same test indicated that, besides being "overly sensitive and prone to melancholy," she probably didn't write well and would need "intensive journaling workshops" to compensate.

She began attending public support groups and networking events for white-collar employees in transition (the term is preferred over "laid off" or "unemployed"), where she started to encounter her fellow seekers -- a disproportionately depressed-looking lot. At one session, she learned that she'd need a darn good explanation for any gap in her résumé whatsoever.

Even if it was from taking time off to raise children?

"The challenge is to be a beggar with a great story," she was told.

The full saga of Ehrenreich's adventures in Transitionland is too long to summarize here. But in the end, what outraged her the most was the pervasive blame-the-victim ethos she encountered. Personal responsibility is a fine thing, she says, but it's not the same as omnipotence. Yet over and over, the newly unemployed were told: You totally control your own fate. At an "executive boot camp," the leader hammered the core message home:

"It's never about the external world," he said. "It's always between you and you."

So never mind if you're on the street because your job was transferred overseas, or because the whole industry you work in went under. Never mind if it's because you've done too well, achieving a salary high enough to put a cost-cutting bull's-eye on your back. In Transitionland, Ehrenreich found, it's all about attitude -- and if you can't stay positive and focused, you don't deserve a job.

"I find that inexcusably cruel to people," she says. "When they're down, when they've sustained what may have been the worst blow in their adult lives -- and you tell them that it's their fault!"

A corollary is that white-collar job seekers are constantly required to hide their emotions, to fake an eagerness they rarely feel. This is what Ehrenreich found harder than cleaning toilets or waitressing.

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