Jobless Barbara

In Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich at least got some jobs. They were lousy, no-collar jobs that didn't quite support her. She lived on the margin of poverty and reported a lot of her co-workers' very serious headaches. The grit was bearable partly because of Ms Ehrenreich's mordant humor, but also because you knew that the author was going to experience a happy ending - you were holding proof, in the form of a printed book, in your hand. This good feeling is absent from Ms Ehrenreich's account of trying to get a better, white-job, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, because she never gets a job to begin with. The only people she meets are sadly laid-off people and the hucksters who "teach" them how to find their way back to work. The futility noted in the subtitle suffuses the entire book. There is still plenty of mordant humor. But there is also plenty of despair.

It's not easy to break into a line of white-collar work without some serious educational channeling. Ms Ehrenreich, an investigative reporter, figures that she can find something in reporting's evil twin, publicity. She legally resumes her maiden name and cobbles together a plausible resume. She devises a schedule, which ends every afternoon with a trip to the gym,

as recommended by all coaches and advice-giving web sites. I would work out anyway, but it's nitce to have this ratified as a legitimate job-search activity. In fact, I find it expanding to fill the time available - from forty-five minutes to more than an hour a day. I may never find a job, but I will, in a few more weeks, be in a position to wrestle and job competitors to the ground. On the downside, I have no clue as to how to use the gym as a networking opportunity. With whom should I network? The obviously unemployed fellow who circles the indoor track for at least an hour a day? The anorexic gal whose inexplicable utterances on the Stairmaster are not, as I first hoped, attempts to communicate but an accompaniment to the songs on her iPod? No matter how many inviting smiles I cast around the place, my conversations never seem to get beyond "Do you mind if I work in?" and "Whoops, I guess that's your towel."

As this passage suggests, the business of looking for a job involves a lot of pretense - and very active pretense at that. I'm not talking about the bland politeness with which I navigate formal social settings. I'm talking about always appearing to upbeat and interested in other people. For a happy few, such behavior comes naturally, but at the expense, I feel, of intelligence, because no bright person can be upbeat all of the time or interested in everybody. Intelligence implies discrimination, and that's one thing that the job-seeker has to suppress, because he or she never knows where an opportunity might lie. Looking for a job is a kind of hunting, but with the pretense that it isn't hunting at all, that the applicant isn't in need. The ability to carry off this illusion on a prolonged basis is an important corporate skill. Ms Ehrenreich quotes Robert Jackall's Moral Mazes: The World of Corporate Managers: "According to Jackall, corporate managers stress the need to exercise iron self-control and to mask all emotion and intention behind bland, smiling, and agreeable public faces."

Ms Ehrenreich avails herself of various conferences and seminars and job fairs, and describing these depressing, self-contradictory horrors takes up most of Bait and Switch. The sad truth is that, not having a job to write about, Ms Ehrenreicher is stuck with a lot of losers, and although I never found her to be unkind, I can see why some reviewers thought that she looked down on her co-non-workers. I attribute this to the simple fact that Barbara Ehrenreich is a noted and successful writer with a sharp eye for what's wrong with America. I really can't imagine her doing a public relations job; she's too honest. Trying to avoid dishonesty would rob her of her candor and make her seem confused. What her book is about, essentially, is how phony the PR about the American jobs market is. Americans are telling themselves some big lies about their working world, and Ms Ehrenreich has uncovered enough of them to fill a book.

Having been told of the importance of "likability" in the workplace, and how it increases as you climb the ladder, Ms Ehrenreich is disturbed. "It's distracting to think that our major economic enterprises, on which the livelihoods and well-being of millions depend, rest so heavily on the thin goo of "likability." A few days later, she attends a symposium in Boston for publicists wanting to learn more about handling corporate disasters. The leader goes off on a tangent (which is what usually happens at these affairs, it seems) about the culture of the executive suite.

It's the internal culture of the corporation, as seen by Jim, that fascinates me. The picture he paints resembles one of the royal courts of Europe, circa 1600, as described by Castiglione or, closer to our own time, the historian Norbert Elias. We, the PR people, are the courtiers who both despise the king and eagerly press around him, anxious for a moment of royal attention. We must learn to speak in low, quiet tones, always framing our advice "strategically" and never wasting words on anything he already knows. Only if we can insinuate ourselves into his confidence can we hope to save the country - I mean, the company - and of course all the credit will go to him.*

The simple truth is that no one has devised a corporate structure that replaces courtly intrigue with genuine meritocracy. A strong CEO, like a strong king, can impose temporary reforms, but they lapse with his departure, just as they did for a millennium in Europe. Considering the rate of change with which we live, our corporate legislation (see "Delaware") is incontestably medieval, and it is not working very well (see "Enron").

But we seem to be so frightened of disorder that we can't bring ourselves to think about business reform. Ms Ehrenreich's last chapter dwells on this conundrum. Legions of laid-off Americans are not - yet - giving much thought to improving the system for their own benefit. They want to get back on a ride that has already rejected them. And the industry under investigation in Bait and Switch encourages them to keep trying.

It is not only through the instructions given to job seekers that the transition industry narrows the range of the thinkable and forecloses the possibility of collective action. In books, coaching sessions, and networking events aimed at the white-collar unemployed, the seeker soon encounters ideologies that are explicitly hostile to any larger, social understanding of his or her situation.

This is the land of the personally responsible, the home of the uncooperative. This is the country where abstract institutions, developed in part by human action and in part by human inertia, take on the mass and permanence of Rocky Mountains, inviting the hardy to test their mettle and discouraging the ordinary from coming near. We deal with problems that have been broken down into pieces, so that reform is undertaken much as the transcontinental railroads were built, reshaping the absolute minimum of terrain. 

When I finished Bait and Switch, I didn't immediately set out to write about it. My principal impression was one of immense confirmation. On page after page, Barbara Ehrenreich gave voice to thoughts that I've either expressed many times or perhaps only hinted at. But I was daunted, too, by the strong suggestion that it for some awful reason I had to find a job, I'd really be up a tree. (March 2006)

* If I were more full of myself, I would ransack Portico for words to this effect, including the reference to Norbert Elias. I wonder what I'd find.

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