Saturday, May 02, 2009

Bait And Switch, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Subtitle: The Truth Will Set You Free, And It's Cheaper Than A Seminar!

You need to read "Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream" by Barbara Ehrenreich if you are:
  • A white-collar professional currently out of work,
  • A white-collar professional currently employed but not 100% certain your job is safe, or
  • Thinking of going into white-collar work.
You need to read this because most people going into white-collar work have an illusion that will get their pockets picked over and over. Your choices are:
  • To figure out the illusion over decades of time, or
  • To read this book. (Afterwards, you still have the problem of how to develop a career, but at least you know about pitfalls that are forbidden to speak of.)
Ehrenreich set out to write a very different book. In the tradition of participant-observation sociology, she would occupy an actual position in an organization, do the work, and notice what it was like so she could describe it. This is not unlike living a year in a peasant village or lamasary, and then producing a book of observations.

Like most people who go into the white-collar professions, Ehrenreich knew that if she did the right thing, got the right education, developed the right skills, pushed the right resume, gave the right interview and worked with all her heart to the maximum of her ability, then she would get a job with the right company, where should would rise to the right level by doing the right work and ultimately have financial success. The only break in this plan is that she would bail early to write her book.

To her obvious surprise, the corporate world was more inaccessible than a Tibetan temple; there was a wealth of paths, guides and guidebooks, but nothing that actually took you there. She did all the right things to get the job. She generated an appropriate resume, got appropriate references, and started working the process. She sunk money into job hunting seminars, consultants, even a makeover. She took personality tests, re-wrote the resume, networked, re-re-wrote the resume, flew out-of-town to more seminars, widened her search parameters, lowered her standards and passed out endless business cards.

She took the bait. It cost a year of time and many thousands of dollars and at the end, the box she had purchased had nothing in it.

The bait was still being offered to each year's cohorts of youngsters heading to college, to Job Placement Offices and to Human Resources Departments. Those determined to do white-collar work may have no choice but to accept the bait and hope for the best; however, being fore-armed with the truths Ehrenreich has dug up will help you to detect b.s. when it comes flying your way, to dodge magic formulas for success in job-hunting (and in keeping your job), and above all, to stop blaming yourself for being among the tens of millions of American white-collar workers un- or under-employed. There's so many of us, we can't all be dorks!

There is much to enjoy in this book. Her sly humor deconstructs pseudoscientific personality tests, con artist resume writers, and employment seminars designed to extract money from the unemployed. These stories alone make the book essential reading for the newly unemployed, as they can save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollar lost to friendly people who want to "help" you ... out of an overburdened wallet.

But the more valuable story is the over-arching one, that the bait of a white-collar job is an illusion. Whatever security there may have been in Ozzie and Harriet 1950s America is gone. Don't look for it, and if offered it, look for the man behind the curtain.

There are books about job hunting that are more cheerful. They are full of crap and designed mostly to get you to buy them.

This book is less cheerful, but that it lets you see helpful truths. Armed with these truths, you have a chance to get somewhere with all your limbs and some of your wallet.

Good luck!

1 comment:

Small Footprints said...

Thank you for the review! Looks like a very interesting read ... and timely, as well!

Small Footprints