Barbara Ehrenreich: "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream"

StoryOctober 17, 2005
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The best-selling author discusses going undercover as a middle-aged professional trying to get a white-collar job in corporate America. She finds that the people who are playing by the rules — going to college, being loyal to the to their employer — are too often ending up in financial ruin. [includes rush transcript]

Throughout her three decades of journalism and activism, Barbara Ehrenreich has been one of the most consistent chroniclers of class in America. She is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed: Surviving in Low-Wage America. That book, which was inspired in part by welfare reform legislation that pushed some 12 million women into the labor market, described her attempt to live on low-wage jobs making, between $6 and $7 dollars an hour. Moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel maid, a cleaning woman, a nursing home aide, and a Wal-Mart sales clerk. She found that with even all of her advantages–race, education, good health and lack of children, her income barely covered her monthly expenses.

In her latest book, "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich explores the plight of white-collar workers forced from jobs by corporations constantly on the hunt for lower-salaried younger workers. She goes undercover again, this time as a middle-aged professional trying to get a white-collar job in corporate America and finds that the people who are playing by the rules —going to college, being loyal to the to their employer— are too often ending up in financial ruin.

  • Barbara Ehrenreich, author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller Nickel and Dimed. A frequent contributor to the New York Times, Harpers, and the Progressive, she is a contributing writer to Time magazine.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talking about the opposite of embedded, talk about your undercover enterprise. I wish we had time to talk about your first stint undercover, getting various jobs to document the plight of people in blue-collar jobs, but right now, white-collar jobs have been your focus, and what happens to people there. Talk about that.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, yeah, and the reason is I have gotten a lot of mail from people in low-wage jobs, as a result of Nickel and Dimed, and people in pretty dire circumstances who may have an eviction notice that they have just gotten, or been diagnosed with a major disease and they have no health insurance, and I began to notice a lot of these people said that they had college degrees, even Master’s degrees, and had once held decent paying white-collar corporate jobs. So, now they’re part of the poverty population. So, that made me interested.

I went undercover this time as a, well, PR person — right? — because I’m a journalist, that goes with PR, to see if I could get a job. I knew I wasn’t, you know, perhaps the best test of the job market, because I have no corporate job experience and older than most companies want, but I wanted to see what was happening, what happens to people when they get downsized, laid off, outsourced. What world do they enter, and how do they go about getting a job, and what do they experience? I found it’s very, very difficult to get a job. They — in fact, right now, 44% of the long-term unemployed are white-collar people, which is a historical change.

AMY GOODMAN: You started off by aiming for what, $50,000 a year and health insurance?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: That way my goal, and then I — over a few months, I began to realize I was aiming too high.

AMY GOODMAN: And you ended up —- you went for ten months -—


AMY GOODMAN: — looking for a job.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yes. And this involves internet searching; there’s a lot out there to do. I mean, you can spend hours and hours and hours a day applying online or posting a resume online. It involves career coaching to get — I even had a physical makeover to look more corporate. I — what else did I — oh, networking. Networking. That’s the big thing. You know, you go out to events where there will be other people, hopefully some of them employed, and you push your business card on them; a boot camp for job seekers. I did everything I could think of.


BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, yes. Testing. I kind of got distracted, I must say, by things I did not expect. I, you know, come from the world of journalism; before that, science. I, you know, deal with facts and logic, as you do.

AMY GOODMAN: You have a Ph.D in biology?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yes. But the corporate world is not like that. Right off, first clue, everybody wants to give you a personality test. Now, I had personality tests in the blue-collar world, but really all they want to know is whether you are a stoner or a thief in the blue-collar world.

AMY GOODMAN: Give an example of a question in those tests?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Blue collar world? Agree or disagree: It is easier to work when you are a little bit high. That’s a hard question, actually. And then — but in the white-collar world, they want —- they say they want to really understand your unique personality so they can slot you into the right job. I said I have already told you I want to be a PR person. No matter, you get these tests. The tests are all completely discredited, scientifically worthless. The first test I took revealed -—

AMY GOODMAN: What’s it called, these tests?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: It was the Enneagram test, based on Sufism and ancient Celtic lore, among other things.


BARBARA EHRENREICH: Seriously, yeah. And major, major corporations rely on this. Anyway, it turned out that my one big flaw was that I was not good at writing and should avoid occupations involving that. So, that was that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you refrained from telling them that you were this New York Times best-selling author, columnist, essayist? You were undercover.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Yeah. I went undercover. No, I just slouched onto my next career coach. But, you know, the theme that begins to emerge in all this, as you search for a job, as you go to these networking events, you don’t have to be alone anymore if you are unemployed, because there’s so much you can go to.

But a theme is that it’s really your own fault if you have lost a job and if you are still searching after six to ten months, because you control everything with your attitude. You know, if you’re positive and upbeat, all good things will come to you. And if you’ve lost a job, that means you must — there’s something wrong with you. So that, here you have, you know, approximately a million people who lose a job every year. That’s not counting Katrina this year. That would bring us up to 1.4 million, but — and so many of them are wandering in the world looking for advice, looking for help and being told, ’It’s you. Don’t think about the economy. Don’t think about corporate policy. Think about your own attitude and how it could be perkier and bouncier and more positive.’



AMY GOODMAN: That’s a big word in what you do and what you try to achieve in this time.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, they say positive, upbeat, and also likable. Very important to be likable is a theme. And the lack of emphasis on skills and experience really startled me. You know, why talk about personality in the first place? How come that’s the first thing all of the career coaches want to do? Why are you warned that that’s what hiring decisions are going to be based on?

AMY GOODMAN: But it’s not only personality. You point out that you were encouraged to not say what your experience was.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: That’s right. Yeah. I was advised to eliminate all but the last ten years of experience in my resume so that I could, you know, pass for somebody who was in their early 30s, at least on the internet, with my resume. And think about that. That’s saying — it’s something about age discrimination, that it is really a complete devaluing of experience. We don’t want — they don’t want the experience. They don’t want that. They want somebody young, pliable and cheap.

AMY GOODMAN: You went to, in one of your networking events, what, the P.R. Society of America?


AMY GOODMAN: What was that like, and why were you there?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, I went to a training, a two-day seminar that they were giving for P.R. people, both to sharpen my skills and to meet, you know, to network with the other P.R. people who were there. And the theme of the seminar — you would have loved it, Amy — it was on dealing with activist threats and other threats to corporations. You know, like you would be given a case study where you are sort of a Wal-Mart-type store facing community opposition; how are you going to deal with that?

AMY GOODMAN: What did they tell you to do?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Actually, they didn’t have a good answer, except you go do grassroots organizing yourself. You do your own grassroots organizing in support of the store or the company, whatever the situation is, which fascinated me.

AMY GOODMAN: And where is that grassroots?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: You go door to door with your people telling people how great it’s going to be to have that Wal-Mart, or what — you know, that was not the example used, but that seemed to be the major tactic.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you offer your experience in these seminars? Now again, you’re looking for a job there.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: No. I didn’t say, 'By the way, I'd be great because I’m an activist.’ No. I didn’t. I was a quiet observer through much of this. I rarely lost my temper.

AMY GOODMAN: So you only ended up being offered two jobs in ten months. What were they, and how much did you make or how much did you have to pay to get these jobs?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, one of them was being a sales person for supplementary health insurance with Aflac, the big company with the annoying commercials.

AMY GOODMAN: The ducks.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: The duck. Yes. And I was quite thrilled to get anything in my inbox inviting me to an interview. I went all dressed up in my corporate best, and after two separate lengthy interviews, I was told I had the job, if I wanted it. I asked how much the pay was. None. Just commissions that you make. Okay.

AMY GOODMAN: None? No job? No money?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: None. Zero pay. You make your money through selling the insurance only. So, I asked what about health insurance? None. You would be selling health insurance, but you wouldn’t have it. And you know, major obstacle, it would cost about $2,000 to even get into the door to get the broker’s license to practice.

AMY GOODMAN: We only have 30 seconds, but the other job?


AMY GOODMAN: And the salary you’d get?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Zero. Zero. But you know, 13 million Americans work in these direct sales jobs with no benefits, no security, and over half of them make less than $10,000 a year.

AMY GOODMAN: This is white collar, what it’s considered?

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Well, any kind of person can go into this, but the white-collar person after certain months of unemployment generally ends up swallowing his or her pride and going down to, you know, Best Buy or Circuit City or somewhere and getting a job at $8 an hour or $7 an hour.

AMY GOODMAN: And they’re considered employed? They come off the unemployment rolls.

BARBARA EHRENREICH: Then they come off the unemployment numbers. Yeah. So, it’s part of the undermining of the middle class that is going on right now.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Ehrenreich, I want to thank you very much for being with us. She’s author of the book, Nickel and Dimed. Her latest is Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream."

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