Barbara Ehrenreich's 2001 peek into the travails of working-class Americans, "Nickel and Dimed," left no doubt about the wrenching disparities...

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Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 peek into the travails of working-class Americans, “Nickel and Dimed,” left no doubt about the wrenching disparities that the have-nots must endure in this country.

But her engaging undercover investigation into the culture of unemployed professionals, “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream” (Metropolitan Books, 237 pp., $24), proves that white-collar workers are just as susceptible in a marketplace that drains job-seeking professionals of the sense of promise that their degrees and impressive résumés were supposed to guarantee them.

As with her research for “Nickel and Dimed,” the left-leaning, sharp-witted Ehrenreich took on a new identity and immersed herself in the world of her subjects, in this case mid-career professionals who’ve either been downsized or fear they soon will be laid off.

Ehrenreich’s goal for the book was deceptively simple: Attempt to land a job that pays at least $50,000 a year and comes with health insurance.

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Author appearance



Barbara Ehrenreich will discuss “Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit

of the American Dream” at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Town Hall, Eighth Avenue
and Seneca Street, Seattle. Tickets are $5 and can be purchased at the Elliott Bay

Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

For nearly a year, she posed as Barbara Alexander, a public-relations professional “in transition” who was seeking career opportunities in the Atlanta area. She printed up new business cards and hired career coaches to help brush up (OK, embellish) her résumé. She worked to increase her personal appeal (suits with rounded silhouettes, well-rehearsed “elevator” chatter). She also enrolled in success seminars and attended networking functions, which ranged from not-very-illuminating to downright depressing.

Ehrenreich is alternately taught to “sell” herself, adopt a “winning attitude,” fill the time gap in her résumé with a “compelling story” that employers will believe and avoid certain cosmetics. In essence, she’s instructed by phonies to become one herself, if she ever wants to advance in the corporate world.

Most disturbing, Ehrenreich and her peers are told by these gurus at every turn that the unemployed worker alone is responsible for his success or failure in the marketplace.

What’s sad is that for many unemployed professionals, their only hope resides in such platitudes sold, for hundreds or thousands of dollars in some cases, by career experts.

With about $6,000 down the tubes for travel, enrollment fees and career-counseling bills, and with her head full of pop-psychology nonsense, Ehrenreich comes up, well … just guess.

In the process, Ehrenreich laments what she sees as a corporate obsession with Stepford-like conformity and physical appearance at the expense of learned skills and concrete experience.

Many of her fellow seasoned but jobless peers have been reduced — if that’s not too elitist a term — to taking “survival jobs” at retail outlets, restaurants and limo services until opportunities fitting their expertise materialize.

Ehrenreich senses that a fundamental shift has occurred in the professional work force, one that threatens the stability of the employed as well as the jobless. The notion that hard work and dedication are rewarded with comfort and job security seems increasingly outmoded. Loyalty to an employer is often a one-way love affair.

“When skilled and experienced people routinely find their skills unwanted and their experience discounted, then something has happened that cuts deep into the very social contract that holds us together,” she concludes.

Nothing groundbreaking there. What’s interesting about “Bait and Switch” is that it captures the details of Ehrenreich’s lived experience. Even though she’s posing as a job seeker, she starts to sense the disillusionment and sting of rejection that real workers experience after months of fruitless searching.

But Ehrenreich doesn’t let her peers off the hook. She makes a (probably futile) plea to white-collar professionals to band together and speak collectively for their rights. And she implicitly warns that if companies aren’t held more accountable, chasing the American Dream will turn into a waking nightmare for us all.

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com