September 19, 2005
Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait and Switch Gives the Lie to America's Most Powerful Myth
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Journalist Barbara Ehrenreich is a master at putting herself in another's shoes. She wrote in Nickel and Dimed of the life she discovered living as a blue collar worker cleaning motel rooms and working for Wal-Mart. Now, with Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, she confronts the demoralizing job hunting scene experienced by unemployed, middle class, middle aged Americans whose dreams and expectations were founded on rugged individualism and the bootstraps myth - but whose reality is that they have been chewed up and spit out by corporations no longer requiring their services. It's a cautionary tale of downsizing, outsourcing, acquisitions and mergers. But there are alternatives, if we Americans are ready to remember our other traditions.
* * *
BuzzFlash: We interviewed you some time ago about Nickel and Dimed. Now you have a new book, Bait and Switch. In researching both, you assumed the role of the people you were exploring – in the first case, of the working poor in America, and in the second case, of the unemployed white-collar worker. How did those two experiences contrast? Are we talking about two different Americas?
Barbara Ehrenreich: No. it’s not two different worlds at all because, when white-collar people get laid off, or fired, or downsized, or outsourced, or whatever, out of their jobs. They very likely may end up in a Nickel and Dimed kind of job – you know, six, seven, eight dollars an hour, doing manual labor. They may not ever get back into the middle-class world. I should say, as an experience, I much preferred Nickel and Dimed. It was hard work physically, but it was straightforward. You know, in a blue-collar world, there’s a job, you get it done, you get paid for it. There’s not a lot of mind games or anything going on about your attitude or your personality. But the white-collar job seeker is constantly advised to upgrade his or her attitude, and to have the best possible smiley-face personality. I found that very tricky and difficult.
BuzzFlash: The subtitle to Bait and Switch is "The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream." But let me ask you, first of all, about the title. What is being baited and switched?
Barbara Ehrenreich: A lot of our young people – college students, who are encouraged to major in things like management or marketing. The most popular major in the United States on our campuses today is business – it's business-related majors. Today's students think that this way, they’ll be secure. The thinking is, don’t go into art history or philosophy, which might be more interesting to you, but stick to what should pay off, and then go into that corporate world and play by the rules, and conform to all the detailed expectations, and do reasonably well – and you should be comfortable for life.
But that’s not how it works out any more. The whole relationship between corporations and their white-collar employees has broken down since the beginning of the nineties. Now people are tossed off, out of their jobs for the slightest reason, or just because it’s part of making the CEO look good because he’s made the corporation leaner and meaner.
BuzzFlash: Why do you think that is?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, there are two ways you can make money – legally, that is. You can sell a lot of your products, or you can cut your expenses. And sometimes it just looks easier to cut expenses. The biggest expense in corporations is labor.
BuzzFlash: In the world of Nickel and Dimed, working jobs in motels, or wherever, many of the people have resigned themselves that this is their fate – that they’re going to be doing this. They wish they could be doing something else. They can dream. But to the white-collar worker – and this gets to the subtitle of your book – the American Dream – to a college student, or someone with a business degree, they don’t expect to be in an unemployment line or unable to find a job. Or they have to go to job coaches, like you did. Is that what you mean by the futile pursuit of the American Dream?
Barbara Ehrenreich: I think a lot of white-collar people have expectations of some kind of stability and material comfort in their lives. It is a shock, and a very devastating shock, to come into work one day and be told to clear out your desk in a half an hour, and get escorted by security to the parking lot. And I think one of the effects – and I can’t say this because I felt it – after all, I was just a journalist doing this – you know, is depression. A lot has been written about depression among the unemployed – it can lead to drinking too much, marital problems, and the real difficulty of just getting up in the morning.
BuzzFlash: You mention that you were the journalist. In both books, Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch, you’re both a journalist and an actor. Neither book is a travelogue through the life of the rich and famous. The people you meet are in crisis situations, and some in a permanent crisis. Nowadays, particularly if you’re older, people can be permanently unemployed as white-collar workers because of age discrimination, more limited jobs, off-shoring and all the reasons you point out. But even though you’re a journalist and you’re assuming different roles, you’re encountering people who are in despair. How did you feel? You have a job. You’re a journalist just passing through their lives, but they aren’t necessarily going to leave those situations.
Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s a problem with this form of journalism. It is a legitimate and respectable form of journalism, and there was a lot of it, for example, in the early 20th Century. I don’t know why there is less now. Maybe newspapers and magazines are very worried about possible legal implications or something. But you’ve just stated a problem – that the journalist gets to know people and, be really horrified by their circumstances, while feeling very helpless to do anything about them except to come back and write about it and do everything possible to raise a fuss. I guess that’s my approach – that I’m on a mission. I have to reveal something. I have to expose something. And that’s what I can do for the people I’m encountering.
BuzzFlash: Getting back to the use of the term American Dream, it obviously has different connotations to everybody – everyone has their own American Dream. But there’s a general sense that this is a country of bottomless and endless economic opportunity, and if you’re tenacious, and you have the stamina, and you work hard, and you’re smart, you will make it. In Bait and Switch, many of the people you encounter, at one point, had that dream and found out they couldn’t make it. Has the American Dream changed? Or has our economy changed, or did you just enter at a certain time that this was happening more than in the past?
Barbara Ehrenreich: You know, something has really changed. Something has changed in the corporate world – that really seismic change away from any kind of sense of loyalty to employees. We saw that with the blue-collar employees in the eighties when companies went offshore with their manufacturing and really cut loose thousands and thousands of blue-collar workers, who sank then into the low-paid service part of the economy. Now something like that is happening to the white-collar people and, you know, I think one thing that is so perverse about it this time around with the white-collar people is that sometimes even success, in a sense of achievement, can turn against you. I met so many people who were facing layoffs or had been laid off, and had just been praised, or just been promoted. And you say you don’t want to be promoted because then you’re paid more, and some bean counter in the company is going to say let’s get rid of her – she’s earning too much money. I got a story recently from someone at GE who asked his boss for a raise. And the boss said, “Why would you want that? It would be like painting a bull’s eye on your back.” Is this any way to run a business - where you actually start picking off the high achievers because they’re paid more?
BuzzFlash: And where does that leave us in terms of the corporate vision? Clearly we’ve seen an era of corporate corruption, with Enron, Tyco and so on. CEOs and CFOs and senior staff have raided their companies, defrauded the shareholders, produced very poor results, yet the salaries of many CEOs increased incredibly. It seems if you’re at the very top, you often are immune to this. But it’s the middle white-collar managers, or the upper middle ones, which tend to be more exposed to the firing.
Barbara Ehrenreich: I think you’re right. I think there is a connection between this reckless downsizing and elimination of jobs and the corporate scandals. I think the connection is just this: The word "corporation," that comes from the Latin for “body,” means people are connected together, forming one body. That’s not true anymore. The corporation has become a kind of a site where you can try to make as much money as you can, if you’re near the top. Or maybe, if you’re not so close to the top even, get ahead by trying to eliminate other people’s jobs. Anything collective about it, or truly corporate in the old sense of the word, is gone.
BuzzFlash: What did you find in your journeys through this world of unemployed white-collar workers, who are growing in number – who do they blame for their situation?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, the message you get out there in the world of the white-collar unemployed, the message again and again is that everything depends on your attitude – whether you have a positive attitude – an upbeat and cheerful and perky attitude. Which for many means, you need to hire a career coach. You go to networking events - which usually aren’t networking events, but some kind of lecture or sermon –
BuzzFlash: Which someone is making money off of.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Yes, but not always. Some of the networking events are completely non-profit. But some coaches and advice books go so far as to say that you control the universe with your thoughts. You can have whatever you want if you just think about it in a focused enough way. Now what that says really is that you – and you alone – are responsible for your fate. If you were laid off, maybe you had a bad attitude before. If you don’t get a job, there must be something wrong with you. So there is a very heavy blame-the-victim ideology that job seekers encounter as they reach out for help.
BuzzFlash: In short, you’re saying that what many of these laid-off white-collar workers are told is they should, in the immortal words of the insurance tycoon, Clement Stone, have a positive mental attitude.
Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s right. You’re told you’ve got to keep working on your attitude, working on your personality, making yourself more likeable - that’s a word they like to use a lot – more up-beat all the time. I had a little problem with this. I mean, I work in a business, journalism, where I can actually be pretty curmudgeonly and nobody knows. All they care about is whether I get my copy in on time. So this was all new to me. And it seemed like things like skills, experience, achievements, meant very little compared to this persona you were supposed to project.
BuzzFlash: Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" describes Willie Loman – a great mythic character in American drama. He has been a salesman for many years and is "let go" by his company - by the son of the man who had originally hired him - and his life crumbles around him. In 2005, almost no one could imagine working for a company now, even twenty years or fifteen years, or getting a gold watch after working 25 years in a company. It seems the time span of a commitment to any company on either side has shortened dramatically.
Barbara Ehrenreich: The sociologist Richard Sennet says that today, once they finish college, a person can count on having about eleven jobs. Some of those changes might be voluntary, but a lot of them are going to be involuntary. So the life trajectory of the middle class has changed drastically in a generation. Before you could say, well, I’m going to be a good company man or woman, and then I will rise, at least a little bit, in the company, and eventually retire with a pension. That’s all over. Now you’re going to bounce around. There’s going to be turmoil, and wild fluctuations in your income. And there’s probably no pension at the end of the road.
BuzzFlash: You write for The Progressive and obviously have a progressive political outlook. But your books are not per se political books. In the end you talk about creating a sense of community among those who have been dispossessed in the white-collar world, and about working for universal health insurance. Is part of the problem this emphasis on each individual person being responsible for having failed? So, if you just have your perky and positive mental attitude, you’ll get back in the work force and the American Dream will be restored? Is that a flawed concept as compared to creating a sense of community and changing things so that there’s a fairer and more equitable determination of your job prospects?
Barbara Ehrenreich: That’s what I would recommend. You know, one of the things I thought of a lot as I went to these so-called networking events, where often you don’t even get a chance to chat with your fellow job-seekers, is that people in bad situations in this country are often very good at coming together in some kind of support group or self-help group. Breast cancer patients, for example, or people with some other disease or problem will come together, tell each other their stories, and maybe it will lead to something – raising money for the cause, or whatever. But you don’t see that among the unemployed. Everything about the world they enter into – the world that’s supposed to be helping them make their transition – isolates them from each other and makes them turn inwards, rather than looking at the system that has just bulldozed over them. It seemed to me – you know, if you don’t have a job, you do have maybe a few hours a day to do something else. How about we spend some of that time lobbying for universal health insurance? Lobbying for better unemployment benefits and more extended unemployment benefits? Or complaining about the outrageous tax breaks that corporations get in the name of job creation, sometimes even as they lay people off?
BuzzFlash: Do the people you encounter convert this into a political perspective?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Sometimes that victim-blaming message takes over – takes hold in their minds. I actually kept two phone messages today from people who’d read interviews with me and who were in long-term unemployment situations saying: Where do we start? I want to get involved. I’ve got to do something. I feel so glad to hear somebody saying it’s not our fault. And by the way, I want to mention that I have a website – barbaraehrenreich.com – and I’m going to be posting resources and groups – you know, things to do as I learn about them. There are already a lot of letters, posted on it. People are welcome to go there and leave their stories, and they can leave their e-mails and I’ll get back to them with resources and groups.
BuzzFlash: To what extent is "rugged individualism" tied to the American Dream? Among the people you’re describing here, who are college educated – with white-collar jobs – do they implicitly accept that rugged individualism view, that the individual is to blame, and not the corporate entity, not the structure or the corporate ethic that we have currently in America, where employees are so dispensable, and loyalty is not a factor in deciding whether a person works or not?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, you know, the rugged individual isn’t our only American tradition. That is one stream of our tradition. But we also have a lot of traditions of mutual support and collective effort, going back to barn-raisings, and women gathering to work together on quilts on the frontier. The trade union movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement – all represent this fine old American tradition of standing together to make change.
BuzzFlash: That’s obviously what you encourage as an alternative to blaming the individual who’s been displaced from work.
Barbara Ehrenreich: Yes.
BuzzFlash: Do you see what you experienced in writing this book as a trend that is only going to accelerate?
Barbara Ehrenreich: Well, there’s no end in sight. This past summer, a number of companies announced large layoffs. And it’s a little unusual for them to do so in the summer, leaving some expert observers to fear that we are really in for another big wave of downsizing on top of the outsourcing that’s already going on. There’s no indication right now that this trend will turn around in any way. Also, I would think the fad of mergers and acquisitions is coming back, and those inevitably lead to layoffs.
BuzzFlash: Barbara, thank you for a wonderful book. We've enjoyed our second interview with you on BuzzFlash.
Barbara Ehrenreich: All right. You’re welcome.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
* * *
Bat and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream (A BuzzFlash Premium)