The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan. 237 pp. $24

Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch is a worthy companion to Nickel and Dimed, her engaging and infuriating 2001 expose of the hard lives of working-class Americans. The new book provides a victim's-eye view of the world of unemployed white-collar workers -- people struggling, mostly in vain, to recoup the high wages and prestige they lost after being dismissed from the not-so-secure confines of corporate America. Bait and Switch is a cautionary tale about the disposability of all American working people -- not just those whose parents couldn't send them to the right schools or who didn't earn high grades or whose bad youthful choices (teenage parenthood, juvenile crime) barred them from the middle class.

The author's investigation into the lives of unemployed white-collar workers begins when she creates a new persona, "Barbara Alexander," seeking to land a permanent position in public relations after many years as a PR consultant. Alexander/Ehrenreich sets herself the task of finding a middle-class job that pays $50,000 per year, plus decent benefits, particularly for health care. The journey from well-known liberal activist and writer to anonymous but solidly compensated corporate employee is a daunting one, requiring her to enlist the help of career coaches, resume consultants and both secular and Christian gatherings of job seekers and holders -- along with countless hours spent writing, revising and sending resumes and pretty much constant searching on the Internet. This hunt for a middle-class job by a white, middle-aged woman with plenty of experience but a resume gap -- a substantial amount of time working outside the corporate managerial sector -- quickly becomes a full-time job in its own right.

The people whom Ehrenreich encounters on her ultimately unsuccessful quest are a diverse crew of the angry, the obsessed, the dejected and the predatory, all united by their need to sell the right formula for success to other desperate people seeking jobs. Some of the career consultants offer magical spiritual systems to help the unemployed align their souls with the economic universe -- for a fee, of course. Resume consultants offer to refine resumes until they are just right -- for a fee. Perky image consultants offer to help the unemployed "dress for success" or present the most pleasant, cooperative and eager public face to interviewers -- for a fee. One job counselor offers a tough-love form of therapy that tries to convince unemployed clients that they are jobless because they blame the world for their misfortunes rather than seeing that they control their own destinies. Christian job networks offer the white-collar unemployed a chance for fellowship, solace and prayer (but not jobs) in their time of need. The archipelago of help Ehrenreich discovers is populated by both hustlers looking to make a buck off the misery of others and well-meaning, self-sacrificing people trying to give comfort to those "in transition" from one corporate job to another. (It's bad form to say that managerial workers are "unemployed," of course.)

Bait and Switch presents a world in which guileless believers in merit and achievement -- which is to say, most of us -- find themselves tossed aside. That's because they operate in an economy where all jobs, skills, organizations, technologies and contracts are subject to the relentless process of "creative destruction" -- a phenomenon first named by the conservative 20th-century economist Joseph Schumpeter and previously analyzed by none other than Karl Marx. The wounded workers of Bait and Switch, most of whom fail to clamber back up to the lucrative levels of their glory days, are bewildered by a process of ceaseless change; today's markets create wealth through an evolutionary process whereby a new technology, organization, managerial method or global competitor displaces a hitherto successful incumbent, as high-tech and financial-sector workers know only too well. The white-collar jobless (as well as their helpers, both benign and malign) whom Ehrenreich encounters in Bait and Switch are carried along in a river that is indifferent to their work effort, needs, opinions or moral worth. Schumpeter and Marx had a point; American capitalism today offers us no assurances that our efforts will be rewarded by security, stability or enough income to let us live well, or at least well enough. In fact, contemporary capitalism regularly turns all workers -- laborers and managers alike -- into economic junk. The days of a long career with one employer, once a key part of the American dream, are long gone for most American workers.

Ehrenreich trots out a few well-known, albeit worthwhile, ideas to ease the suffering of those tossed onto the economy's trash heap -- more generous unemployment insurance, portable health insurance -- but these would do nothing to stop the churning of people and lives that is the modern job market. At the end of Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich recommends that the white-collar unemployed band together with the blue-collar unemployed to form a coalition to agitate for greater economic security. This plea for solidarity is, alas, of little value so long as most of us believe that we can escape the risks of economic change in an age where technology and globalization turn middle-class life into a crap shoot. *

Marcellus Andrews is an economist at the Insurance Information Institute in New York and a senior research fellow at both the New America Foundation and the Center for Economic and Policy Research.