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.
Ehrenreich got a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University in 1968, but before she could do much with it she hooked up with a group of activists trying to improve health care for poor New Yorkers. "Health seemed related to biology," she says, and it turned out she loved reporting and writing on the subject.
Before long, her feminist-socialist take on the world was showing up in magazines like Ms. and Mother Jones. A well-reviewed 1983 book called "The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment" earned her assignments from the New York Times -- and a foot in mainstream journalism's door. From 1990 to 1997, she wrote a regular column for Time. By then she'd also written a number of other books, including "Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class" and the densely researched "Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War."
She'd never gone undercover, though.
One day in 1998, in conversation with Harper's editor Lewis Lapham, she threw out a question that has long concerned her: "How does anyone live on the wages available to the unskilled?" She followed this with the offhand suggestion that "someone" -- presumably a younger, hungrier someone -- should just "go out there and try it for themselves."
"You," said Lapham, smiling.
She says she didn't want to do it. But she was a freelance writer who needed to eat.
So she went to work in Florida, struggling to pay the rent and gaining new appreciation for the stamina of waitresses. ("The break room summarizes the whole situation: There is none, because there are no breaks . . . For six to eight hours in a row, you never sit except to pee.") The resulting Harper's piece got a ton of attention and earned her a contract with Metropolitan Books.
"My book editor said, 'Oh, go out and do some more of this and we'll have a book,' " Ehrenreich recalls. "Easy enough for you to say, Sara!"
She signed on with a cleaning service in Portland, Maine, where she learned to scrub floors "the old-fashioned way" (on her knees) and to distinguish the three kinds of excrement stains that must be removed from toilets (don't ask). She also watched in horror as a co-worker hopped around cleaning on one leg: Afraid to anger the boss, the woman refused to go to the emergency room after a fall had badly injured her ankle.
Later, while earning $7 an hour at a Minnesota Wal-Mart, she learned that bathroom trips and conversations among employees were banned as "time theft." Ehrenreich rebelled by sneaking into the rest room before she punched out for her 15-minute break.
There were obvious downsides to the undercover shtick. She had to change most people's names, for one thing, making it harder for readers to trust her. What's more, maintaining her cover meant that she couldn't delve too deeply into the lives of her minimum-wage colleagues.
"It is a kind of reporting that people respond to," says Lapham. "It's the same thing an embedded journalist does in Iraq."
"Nickel and Dimed" has sold more than a million hardcover and paperback copies combined, according to its publisher; the paperback edition has spent 92 weeks on the New York Times's bestseller list. Considering the usually modest sales of conventionally reported books about poor people, it seems reasonable to conclude that you need some kind of stunt to get the public's attention.
Small wonder Ehrenreich wanted to try it again.
But she decided to go white collar this time.Transitionland
The decreasing economic security of the American middle class has been the subject of considerable journalistic attention. "Over the last 25 years," as the Los Angeles Times summed up the situation in one lengthy 2004 report, "economic risk has been steadily shifted from the broad shoulders of business and government" and placed on the backs of individual employees.
This development can be spun positively or negatively, depending on your point of view. Considered as a whole, the Times noted, the transformed economy has performed well. At the same time, "a broad array of protections that families once depended on to shield them from economic turmoil -- among them "stable jobs, widely available health coverage, guaranteed pensions" -- have been either sharply reduced or eliminated.
Leah Gray knows all this firsthand. An unemployed marketing specialist Ehrenreich met while working on "Bait and Switch" -- she's one of the few subjects who agreed to have her real name used -- Gray said in a telephone interview that she'd gotten used to hearing things like "Leah, this is really difficult, you did a superb job and you're really well liked, but . . . " as she was being let go.
"I've never been a woe-is-me kind of person," she said. But she has no health insurance. She cried when she had to cash in her 401(k) plan. And she has sometimes gotten too depressed to look for work.
"Bait and Switch" was inspired, in part, by letters Ehrenreich received from people in situations like Gray's. We've done everything right, the message was -- gotten an education, worked hard -- and we still can't find stable jobs. Why not write about us ?
So she decided to investigate what she calls "this tremendous churning in and out of the corporate world." She wanted to know how it feels to be scrambling for work because you've been downsized, outsourced or restructured out of your white-collar job. The plan was to portray herself as a PR professional, an area where she had plausible skills, and go looking for a job with health insurance and a salary of maybe $50,000 a year.
She figured it would be easier than scrubbing toilets.
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.
"You can't fake being a waitress," she says. "The food gets to the table or it doesn't." But in the world of the white-collar unemployed, "you're constantly being told to be something different than you are. You have to be upbeat, positive, perky, obnoxiously self-confident."
The corners of her mouth twitch grimly upward.
"I know!" she says when this is pointed out. "I'm trying to put the smile on right now!"Rugged in America
But . . . but . . . but . . . you think, as you approach the end of Ehrenreich's tale. Sure it's rough out there. But why couldn't the Undercover Reporter, with all her experience and skills, even come close to finding work?
This is a line reviewers may take, she fears. At least one, which showed up in today's mail, already has. "It was something like "not as involving as 'Nickel and Dimed' because she doesn't get a job," Ehrenreich reports. "That's going to be the curse of 'Bait and Switch,' being the little sibling of 'Nickel and Dimed.' "
She had handicaps, to be sure. She was in her sixties, hardly the most marketable age, and had to disguise this on her resume. She had no professional contacts to start with, she points out. What she doesn't say -- though it's clear from the book -- is that she spent too much time networking with other jobless folks and not enough beating down the doors of the gainfully employed.
Still, she says, "I don't think my effort was shabby compared to that of the other job seekers I was interacting with."
Okay. What about the widely shared belief -- most widely shared among the securely employed, of course -- that America is all about rugged individualism? That competition is the engine of the capitalist economy, which is the source of our prosperity, and that winners and losers are just part of the game?
"I say, well fine, but what are we competing about ?" she counters. "I'm not attacking notions of competitiveness or individuality, really. But I'm looking at a system which casts people out whether or not they're good."
It's bad for capitalism, she says, when corporate culture creates a disconnect between achievement and reward. These days, you can be laid off through no fault of your own if the CEO changes your company's direction. But that same CEO may not be accountable if the direction change fails. "We see CEOs who preside over companies that are tanking raise their pay and perks."
What are her hopes for "Bait and Switch"? She wants her middle-class readers to stop thinking of poor people as "the other," some kind of unique species, fundamentally different from themselves.
"I want the 35-year-old middle manager at a bank to be thinking: I have something in common with a homeless person. It could happen. I'm not so far away from that."
She's got hopes for the article you're reading, too.
"Just be sure to describe me as a really terrific PR person who has been overlooked by the corporate world," she says. "They lost their chance!"