Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream
Barbara Ehrenreich (Metropolitan Books)

In Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a compelling account of her year spent doing low-paid jobs around the United States. It was a book that focused on the lives of America's working poor - blue collar workers. It was a fierce indictment of US capitalism, where the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.

This time Ehrenreich turns her attention to supposedly 'financially secure' white collar workers. While tales of poverty and financial hardship are routine among American blue collar workers, Ehrenreich began to notice 'that many tales of hardship were coming from people who were once members of good standing of the middle class - college graduates and former occupants of mid-level white collar positions.'

Ehrenreich thus entered the world of the white collar unemployed. She forged a new identity, wrote a plausible CV (mostly fiction) and then experienced a year of 'personal coaching', 'motivational speakers', 'job fairs' and 'networking'.

Ehrenreich quickly discovered that despite all the 'job-hunting', the nasty reality of US capitalism always made its presence felt.

She observes that the American middle class, much like western middle classes generally, have been brought up with the expectation that 'hard work' will always be rewarded with material comfort and security.

While the American blue collar workers have never believed this myth (they work hard and still remain impoverished), it is also increasingly untrue of the middle class. Indeed, as one American sociologist has commented, 'success and failure seem to have little to do with one's accomplishments.'

Ehrenreich met many fellow unemployed white collar workers during her year-long odyssey. Many were victims of corporate purges. One day they were climbing up the corporate career ladder, the next day they were 'surplus to requirements.'

As Marx observed, capitalism has never provided stability and the days when American corporations provided jobs for life have gone. Indeed the myriad of 'job coaches' and 'motivational speakers' counsel unemployed professionals to 'adapt to new conditions', to be 'flexible'.

But it still doesn't provide adequate jobs.

Unfortunately, white collar workers tend to blame themselves for being out of paid work, rather than the economic system that has sent them off to the reserve army of labour.

Thanks to the ever-expanding 'job search industry', white collar victims of corporate instability, regularly meet at 'job forums', 'motivational conferences' and so on. But there is no talk about capitalism or capitalist economics, rather its all about writing a 'better CV', 'interview techniques', 'meeting the right people', etc. The only people who benefit from this are the job coaches and motivational speakers - they're making a lot of money out of their 'clients'.

Ehrenreich writes; 'the constant instruction is to treat your job search as a job itself' - preferably guided by a 'job coach'.

As an aside, here in New Zealand Work and Income are instructing its clientele to look for jobs 'eight hours a day'. This from a government department that promotes false unemployment figures and paints a unrealistically rosy picture of the job market.

Ehrenreich's message is not to be sucked in by such propaganda. Rather, she writes, what unemployed workers and workers in insecure jobs need is courage - 'the courage to come together and work for change, even in the face of overwhelming odds.'


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