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Bait and Switch

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 her 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-collar 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 ...

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Ugh, for obvious reasons (my arduous job search from 2003-2005) I don't think I'll be able to read this book. But you highlight a good point: maintaining an upbeat disposition in the face of sheer rejection. It's a harrowing time to look for a job that won't bore you to tears.

Your review of this book confirms some of my growing convictions as well, namely that most institutions in this country are designed around the functioning of a peaceable -- or passable -- kingdom, ruled by "thymotic" despots (see The Sunday Times column by David Brooks) and girded against the radical notions of independent thinkers and individual striving. Our educational system doesn't aim to develop multiple intelligences as much as it tries to mold compliant and basically functioning workers. Same with the vaunted family moral structures of organized religion, let alone the supposedly mertitocratous job market. It takes courage to step up and think or speak against or beyond the mainstream (witness the press in the past 6 years), and you're not going to do it within these established institutions. (Suck up or get out.) We need new ones.

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