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Barbara Ehrenreich's White Collar Blues | The Nation

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Barbara Ehrenreich's White Collar Blues

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It's a literary tradition to claim that a quiet desperation is the fate of the white-collar worker. Herman Melville on Bartleby, the unwilling scrivener, C. Wright Mills on the office drones of the 1940s and '50s, and the authors of such recent books as The Corrosion of Character (Richard Sennett) and White Collar Sweatshop (Jill Andresky Fraser) all describe people whose jobs are superficial and whose status is unstable. The bosses above accumulate the profits and power; the manual workers below at least know they are making or serving products nearly everyone needs. But the salaried masses have only their anxieties and the occasional ambition, usually frustrated, to go into business for themselves.

About the Author

Michael Kazin
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University. He is co-editor of Dissent and the author of American Dreamers...

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The left's hope lies in reviving the tradition of speaking in credible, urgent, moral ways about policies to aid the great majority.

If Obama and his progressive allies hope to defeat the latest assault on federal power, they will need to go beyond his artful ambivalence.

Now comes Barbara Ehrenreich to probe a deeper level of white-collar pain: men and women who lose or quit their corporate jobs and routinely spend months, even years, trying to find another. Bait and Switch is the logical sequel to Nickel and Dimed, her revelatory 2001 book about the blue-collar poor. Nickel and Dimed is one of the most significant works of social criticism any American leftist has written since the 1960s. With humanity and shrewd wit, Ehrenreich described her stints of voluntary toil in several of "America's least attractive jobs"--from cleaning houses to clerking for Wal-Mart. Without a smidgen of condescension, she confirmed how difficult it is to survive on nonunion wages, demolished the myth of the kinder and gentler workplace and sold a million books--proving that an impressive number of Americans care enough about economic injustice to read a scathing, compelling account of the toll it takes on the class below.

But few of the people who read Nickel and Dimed earn their keep with a mop or by stocking shelves, and most live neither in a trailer park nor in a grimy, pay-by-the-week motel. So to explore the lives of "people who were once members in good standing of the middle class," Ehrenreich put together a phony résumé, purchased a few new outfits and began searching for a job in public relations. That goal seemed logical too. After all, Ehrenreich is a veteran journalist and, as she notes, "PR is really journalism's evil twin."

Unfortunately, she never got to flack for a big corporation or trade rumors with her fellow white-collars by the coffee machine. After struggling for almost a year on the job market, Ehrenreich failed to land a position. By her account, she was "admirably flexible, applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey's." But her age and several ominous "gaps" in her made-up career did her in.

She started the job-seeking process by sampling the world of job "coaches" and "networkers," and only made it out in time to write this book. As in every inferno of psychobabble, her experience was at once ludicrous and depressing. Ehrenreich spent time with a coach who used dolls of Elvis and of characters from The Wizard of Oz to divine her personality type; another gave her a battery of simple-minded tests and then declared that the results proved her client to be "the commandant...a natural leader!" The same peppy coach advised the skeptical Ehrenreich, who is over 60, to cleanse her résumé by lopping two decades off her age and eliminating all references to jobs she held before the 1990s.

These were solitary escapades, but to network with the well-dressed unemployed was to enter a sadder circle of hell. Ehrenreich describes several of the gatherings she attended, which dressed up the age-old clichés of self-reliance in the oddly complementary lingoes of aggression and "spirituality." There was the "boot camp" in Atlanta where a would-be Dr. Phil told the assembled job seekers to "find the one place out there that will nurture and value YOU!" and then chided them for not being team players. There was the PowerPoint obsessive, an Alec Baldwin look-alike "only without the sexual edge" who counseled a band of doleful networkers to think of themselves as being "in transition" instead of out of work. "You're executives here," he told the group, which was supposed to furnish the necessary steel to confront a bank about to foreclose on one's home. And, inevitably, there was a "fellowship lunch" at which the Ten Commandments got passed off as advice for job seekers. Ehrenreich, a confirmed atheist, refrained from challenging her Christian hosts to justify how they could turn the First Commandment ("You shall have no other gods before Me") into an injunction to "show proper respect for authority"--namely, the boss.

Unemployed white-collars signal their despair when they spend hundreds, even thousands, of dollars traveling to and attending such sessions. The organizers secure a steady income for themselves by gulling the unlucky into devoting at least as much time to searching for a job as they would spend actually working at one. As Ehrenreich observes, these con artists manage to reproduce one of "the more regrettable features of employment, like having to follow orders--orders which are in this case self-generated." Fortunately, she's on their case, exposing the cant spewed out by corporate culture, while never forgetting that clever ridicule is always more convincing than righteous rage.

Still, there's something disturbing about how she regards the poor souls she met along the networking trail of tears. Like Mills in his classic study, White Collar, Ehrenreich has a hard time empathizing with such people. In Nickel and Dimed, she wrote with respect, even affection, about the women with whom she cleaned toilets and peddled blouses. These underpaid but essential workers, she wrote in an exquisite phrase, are "the major philanthropists of our society."

In contrast, Ehrenreich despises the kind of corporate shill she was pretending to want to be. And her loathing tends to rub off on the men and women who desired similar positions for themselves, who equated a secure one with achieving the good life. Ehrenreich also slights the ingenuity required in many PR jobs; in a market society, the selling of images can be as exciting and creative, if not as socially useful, as investigative reporting.

But Bait and Switch rarely quotes or describes other job seekers. The few who do emerge from the shadows are bewildered by their plight, unable to perceive that they are wasting their time and money sitting "in windowless rooms while someone--most commonly a white male in his fifties or sixties--stands at the front testifying, preaching, exhorting, or coaching." Ehrenreich would "rather be waitressing."

Why do they sit there suffering? The only answer Ehrenreich offers is that these people swallow the ideology that it's every job hunter for herself. "It explains the winners' success in the most flattering terms while invalidating the complaints of the losers." Job coaches peddle the line that, in the fickle world of the postmodern corporation, only the "relentlessly cheerful, enthusiastic, and obedient" will find secure positions, and the desperate do their best to conform.

But is aggressive individualism so irrational a belief for those who want to make it in big business? After all, professionals in every field--be it journalism, information technology or PR--are judged by how they perform in competition with their peers. Only for writers as talented as Ehrenreich can railing at the system bring anything but failure.

That cheerless fact is the reason few corporate white-collars are likely to follow her suggestion that they lobby for extended unemployment benefits and universal health insurance. One doesn't have to identify with the boss to see the benefits of spouting the company line, and progressive activists are not common inside the headquarters of the Fortune 500.

The only way to change this reality is to change the goals for which professionals are hired. The black freedom movement created jobs for thousands of civil rights lawyers and affirmative-action officers, and the green upsurge launched new careers for conservationists and environmental policy makers. Until there's a broad revival of the American left, most resisters among the white-collar unemployed will emulate Bartleby's immortal response to his employer: "I would prefer not to."

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