Revolution! One Cubicle at a Time 

Barbara Ehrenreich Goes Looking for the White Collar Dream


All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind.
– Karl Marx

Building on the success of her proletarian exposé Nickel and Dimed, which the bourgeoisie received with rousing, guilty applause, Barbara Ehrenreich has targeted corporate America for her latest, Bait and Switch. The game is the same as in Nickel and Dimed (unless you avoided bookstores and NPR throughout 2002 and 2003, you know that Ehrenreich worked anonymously as a waitress, maid and Wal-Mart clerk, then wrote about the experience of trying to get by). This time, her aim was a white-collar $50,000 salary with benefits — specifically, disguised as Barbara Alexander and provided with a carefully fabricated work history, she tried to land a corporate PR job anywhere in the US. The book was supposed to be partly about the search and then rounded out by her experiences on the job, but unlike in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich, after a year of full-time searching, never actually found work. The resulting story necessarily bears an existential tinge as our heroine pumps resumés into the ether, consults “career coaches,” attempts to network, makes several pilgrimages to job fairs, and plumbs the misery of her fellow seekers.

As someone well acquainted with the cubicle, I did not expect to learn much from Ehrenreich, who’s never known its warm embrace. The monotony of the mouse click, the maddening inefficiency, the false camaraderie, the manufactured pep — these are the widely recognized hallmarks of the white-collar experience. But it turns out that there is an even darker circle of hell than I’ve known; the mild depression of the average mid-level toiler is the envy of today’s unemployed. Consider, for example, their ally, the career coach; one might, based on the fundamental principles of economics and common sense, expect such a person to help the searcher craft an eye-popping CV and target employers. It turns out, however, that unemployment requires first and foremost a reevaluation of one’s relationship with the universe. For the career coach (and the entire race of false prophets in the self-help industry), nothing ever “just happens.” If you find yourself suddenly unemployed and searching unsuccessfully, you are the victim of nothing more than your own metaphysical system. The half-brained empiricist might point to mass layoffs, outsourcing, poor management, or just bad luck, but this sort of negative thinking gets you nowhere. No — all phenomena hinge on your own will and (more importantly) your attitude.

So not only must the job searcher endure the strife and indignity of lacking an income, she is diagnosed with a sickened soul. Even worse, this idea is bewilderingly articulated via a swarm of systems, where EP/PSWB (External Performance is proportional to Personal Sense of Well Being) and F=GMM2/R (F is…never mind). Once it’s been mathematically established that the subject is cosmically warped, she can proceed to the various remedies — the “seven habits of highly effective people,” the “four competencies,” the “sixty-four principles of success,” etc. — and if they don’t provoke a miraculous transformation, there can be no confusion about who’s to blame.

When they are not casting their resumés into and other voids, Ehrenreich’s fellow “undead” (as one seeker puts it), disemboweled and lobotomized by jargon, stumble from networking event to job fair questing for that rare contact with an actual employer. Unfortunately, Ehrenreich repeatedly finds herself at events attended solely by the unemployed, who without the pressure to commoditize themselves immediately lose their false buoyancy and deflate to a sunken posture. A roomful of people specializing in everything from IT and telecommunications to HR and PR, regardless of their apparent similarity, can only share their mutual demoralization. Some have searched for a year and find it hard to go on. Their peers sympathize, but the organizers of the events (the Forty Plus Club, the Layoff Lounge, etc.) urge perseverance, because there is no alternative.

It’s all horribly depressing, but Ehrenreich soldiers on with her trademark mild irony and congenital class consciousness. She is a rare thing — a liberal sure that the revolution will come. Confident of her narrative’s overall effect, she does not waste our time by wallowing in pity or anger. Through a combination of personal experience, sociological observation and supporting research, she paints her picture of an increasingly insecure and overworked labor force and the shadow world of unemployment. She lets the euphemisms and absurdities speak for themselves. It’s a breezy read (possible in a long afternoon), oddly so for a book that damns the heart of our economy and ends by summoning the white-collar unemployed to unite.
How long, Ehrenreich asks, will the managerial class remain quiet? The days of the 1950s organization man are gone, when a bachelor’s degree and mere competence were enough to guarantee a job with a fatherly corporation and its comforts (a pension, health care, self-respect). Now employees are cast like step-children into the streets when they don’t suit the stockholders’ (read: CEO’s) unrelenting demands. As comfort, they are assured that they are simply “in transition” and are themselves masters of the universe if only they’d realize the truth of their own omnipotence. The working poor of Nickel and Dimed are too exhausted; what excuse does the more comfortable stratum of the middle class have?

Probably there is some patriotism in the stubborn ignorance of America’s injustices. The bedtime story of the American Dream tends to make the revolutionary impulse sleepy. And then there’s the ancient institution of personal pride — especially potent in a land so preoccupied with being The Greatest Country on Earth. For whatever reason, no matter how much he is devalued and insulted or how many times cast aside, Joe Cubicle can’t help identifying with his employer. Like the proverbial abuse victim who swears “he only hits me ‘cuz he loves me,” America’s white-collar workforce resignedly endures beating after beating. Of all the tongue-clucking portraits in Bait and Switch, the one that will stay with me is that of the seeker who, after a long bout of unsuccessful searching, schemes to land a serving job at an upscale restaurant, “where serving gives you a chance to network with the big shots by giving them your business card with the check.” It’s hard to tell what’s more pathetic: his chipper servility or his delusion that this will work. Nevertheless, here he is, the American white-collar everyman, single-minded in his quest for redemption. One wonders how long it’ll take before he spits in the food. •


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