White collar woe: Ehrenreich book goes corporate

All Barbara Ehrenreich wanted was a white-collar job at $50k a year plus bennies. Uh-huh. Join a little club called America, honey.

In Bait and Switch, the veteran social critic uses the same undercover tactics as her best-selling Nickel and Dimed to explore life in Dilbert Country. Her goal is simple: land a cubicle and report from within.

To this end, she employs a team of job coaches who, for a mere $200 an hour, offer useless assignments (describe your fantasy job!), résumé advice, and personality tests galore. But after a year on the trail, the best she's able to muster are spots pimping the products of AFLAC (quack!) and Mary Kay. As both are independent contractor gigs (read: no benefits), she decides to pass. Given this failure, Bait and Switch is less an exposé of corporate America than it is a politicized job seeker's diary.

After her back-to-back undercover forays into various work milieus, one has to wonder if pretending to be someone you're not has an appeal greater than journalism. Ehrenreich says it isn't so.

"It was very different in Nickel and Dimed," she explains to the Hook from her Charlottesville home. "I easily got a job, and it was 'You gotta do this, you gotta do that.' You can't pretend to be a waitress. The food gets to the table or it doesn't. Now in Bait and Switch, there was a level of deception that was way beyond that. I had to have a fake résumé. I even had a different name to prevent recognition."

While Ehrenreich ventured to job coaching sessions, executive boot camps, and a host of networking events at exurban eateries with names like Roasted Garlic, she's never in a position to observe her fellow unemployed over the long term. What's missing in "on the job" immediacy, however, is often made up for in analysis.

Take, for example, her distinction between blue- and white-collar job hunting. In the former, a pulse and a drug test can get you in the door. Not so in the corporate world, where employers expect an almost spiritual devotion to work that does little more than gnaw the soul.

For Ehrenreich, the systemic rise in white-collar unemployment coupled with lashings of downsizing amounts to nothing less than the shattering of a social contract understood by generations.

"The idea of the corporation is a number of people coming together and acting as one body. I think it meant something like that well into the seventies," she says. "You were loyal to the company, and it was loyal to you. Since the late '80s, with the wave of mergers and acquisitions, upper and middle level employees are more likely to be seen as liabilities. How can we dispose of as many people as possible?"

As Ehrenreich puts it, the corporate world still requires abject sacrifice but without the one thing worth selling your soul for. "It's the same demand for total loyalty, but with no security," she says. "It's no longer enough to do a good job, you have to be passionate about your work– yet it's unrequited love."

John Dicker lives in Denver. His latest book is The United States of Wal-Mart.

Barbara Ehrenreich lives in Charlottesville but may soon spend a year in Washington D.C.

Bait and Switch

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Henry Holt, New York

256pp. $23.00