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on 8 April 2007
Barbara Ehrenreich has a dry wit. When she decides to go undercover as a white collar professional (first seeking and then fulfilling a job within America's corporate citadel), she finds herself in a world so desperate and surreal that she need only report with her admirable clarity to render it, quite often, funny.

But humour is not her intention, for the most part. Her subject is essentially suffering; the immense human cost of the way American business, especially big business, now approaches staffing at all levels, and the almost totally meaningless responses with which individuals try adapt to it.

Being a white-collar jobseeker is these days proclaimed to be a job in itself. It is also a position in which people are prey to a whole industry of pundits, coaches, purveyors of tips, networking opportunities, boot camps, prayer meetings and therapy groups. Ehrenreich spent over $6,000 during some seven to nine months of intensive searching. All her work, and investment, never yielded so much as an acknowledgement from most of the potential employers she approached.

This is a highly instructive piece of reporting from a world which otherwise really doesn't get represented. The reason is, practically everything else dealing with these realities is determined to ignore their human and social (and, one would think, organisational) costs and simply to provide a programme or set of indicators to people facing the difficulties of what is euphemistically called 'transition.' No-one wants to admit that what is really going on, as with the broader drive of neo-liberal economics (see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neo-liberalism) is effectively class war. What is both comic _and_ tragic is that the American middle class seems completely unable to perceive the reality of what is being done to it. Educated to think they don't actually have a class-based society, they are naturally perfect victims for a war they literally cannot imagine (but can be sacrificed to).

For a remarkable feat of contemporary anthropology, documenting the rituals and belief systems of a clearly delusional subculture in the mainstream of American society, Ehrenreich deserves major kudos. As a warning of what will almost certainly engulf middle class professionals everywhere sooner or later, she also deserves the gratitude of anyone attempting to understand the world today. It would be unfair to criticize the book for what it doesn't do (and doesn't set out to) - critique and analyse the policies and dogmas with which the attack on middle-class employment is rationalised, or the underlying motives. This is a missing part of the picture here, one which has yet to be documented to my knowledge (except in the general terms presented by Harvey in the work cited above). Bait and Switch is nevertheless a valuable document and ought to be read as a fierce indictment of the indefensible destruction of a way of life and the demoralization of an entire society.
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VINE VOICEon 3 September 2007
I spent many years unhappy in jobs before I became self-employed. Since being self-employed I have visited the networking clubs and come into contact with the world of life-coaches, I even had to return to employment briefly which was just as horrible as Barbara Ehrenreich describes. This may be a book about America, but almost all of it is relevant in the UK.

Ehrenreich pinpoints the distorted ideas about how people should behave when seeking jobs. The expectation that people need to be flexible team players, unrelentingly upbeat and amenable. And leave your morals and principles at home please.

I remember once listening to an accountant from a top law firm saying that anyone who wanted to join his firm had to have a 2.1 or above. But when it came to him, he didn't even have a degree. However, things were different now, he maintained. Ehrenreich reveals the stupid ideas about not having gaps in your CV. Having children, taking stock, doing something unconventional - none of these are seen as being quite right for corporations.

My conclusion is you can't fight against it, you have to find people who share your values. For those of us lucky to be out of it, thank the lord.
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I came to this book having enjoyed another of Ehrenreich's books 'Smile or Die', a sad, funny look at the cult of positive thinking. Certain of the themes explored in that book are evident here too. Whilst Ehrenreich is dealing specifically with the US experience of white collar unemployment, plenty of the issues she raises are evident in the UK as well. Ehrenreich was writing before the most recent financial crisis and the recession which followed and I daresay the situation she describes is probably considerably worse now.

Although the book describes Ehrenreich's search for a professional/white collar job in the US, many of the points she makes and the issues she highlights are just as applicable to the experience of those already employed, nor are they confined to the US. She talks of the need for job-seekers to conform to certain requirements - to be upbeat, passionate, enthusiastic, good team players, to suppress any negative feelings & so forth. These factors form part of most structured appraisal systems too and no doubt impact on the decision making around redundancies and lay offs. Ehrenreich alludes to the potential downsides of this kind of strait-jacket approach in her concluding chapter which widens the discussion out. I no longer work in the corporate world but spent many years immersed in it and recognise some of the things Ehrenreich mentions: the call for good 'team players' or the 'right' personality types or that likeability (or is it sucking up?) becomes more important than competence & ability for career advancement and job security. The downside of all this is that too often employees are unable or unwilling to challenge anything (I am reminded of recent press stories of Fred Goodwin's reign at RBS and how he stifled dissent).

Ehrenreich touches too on the issue of the loss of mutual trust & loyalty. It will be interesting to see whether employee loyalty, engagement & productivity recover once the economic woes of the last few years are behind us. It is difficult to see why employees who have been 'let go' or who have suffered years of reductions in real wages should re-discover a sense of loyalty to or trust in their employer. An old friend who is a partner in a huge professional services firm recently complained to me that attitudes are changing, that employees aren't as loyal and are on the lookout for better opportunities. I'm afraid I wasn't very sympathetic and marvelled at the disconnect in her thinking: the firm had made substantial redundancies and cut back on its pay, benefits & training offering so it didn't seem odd to me that employee attitudes might have changed. I suspect the breach in mutual trust & loyalty will not be fully repaired and will have an adverse impact on businesses over the longer term.

Ehrenreich's final plea is for improved unemployment compensation and healthcare provision in the US more akin to the European model to provide an adequate safety net. As I write parts of the US government have closed down owing to the budget impasse as the Republicans try to abort Obamacare. It seems inconceivable at this point that a significantly improved safety net will be offered, particularly when many Americans subscribe to the line that the unemployed and under-employed are responsible for their own situation.

Although this short book is well-written and illustrated with examples from the job-seekers Ehrenreich encountered, I do feel that by focussing on the job search aspect it under-stated the underlying issue of corporate culture, how it has changed and what the effect of that change might be. For me, many of the issues raised as part of the search are more fundamental features of corporate life worthy of wider consideration. I appreciate that would have been a different book but it would have been more rounded.
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on 29 April 2010
As a Britisher who was lucky enough to spend most of my adult life working uneventfully for a single multinational corporation, I found "Bait and Switch" very uncomfortable reading. I was made redundant in 1993, and spent several months experiencing the futility of job searching and networking, while being treated like an undeserving supplicant by the DSS. (Eventually I was condemned to a form of indentured servitude, in which - to go on drawing the miserable pittance of unemployment benefit - I had to work full time, free of charge, for a startup that was kind enough to "employ" me). Reading this book made me realise what a narrow escape my family and I had; it tells of so many educated, hard-working and talented people who lost their jobs for no particular reason, and ended up on the streets. Knowing that there is no real safety net is one thing; but Barbara Ehrenreich drives the reality of it home with example after example. It is truly astonishing that someone of her proven intelligence, culture, and ability was unable to get even the offer of a single proper job in almost a year of dedicated, no-expense-spared searching. But then it is only a week since I read in the British newspapers of an educated, hard-working, delightful young woman who killed herself after being unable to get a single job offer in two years of trying.

"Bait and Switch" is an excellent corrective to anyone who is still naive enough to think that free-market capitalism, as practiced in the USA and Britain today, is "the best of all possible worlds". It highlights the shocking selfishness, narrow-mindedness, and sheer primitive thinking of corporate culture. Apparently this is a world where an appreciation of irony, a slightly unusual choice of clothing, or even what someone called "the stench of academe" - too high a level of education - can make you untouchable, a leper, an unperson. I was strongly reminded of a natural history program I once saw on TV, which described a species of monkey that lives in a cold environment in Japan. We saw the dominant few monkeys sitting comfortably in a hot spring, staying nice and warm, while a few yards away the "loser" monkeys hunched shivering - possibly destined to die of exposure sooner or later. I'll never forget the unconcern with which the privileged monkeys regarded their doomed social inferiors. Ehrenreich noticed a similar uncaring attitude among the corporate haves to the have-nots reduced to the futile pursuit of jobs, or taking low-paid "survival jobs" in a hopeless attempt to pay the bills. She describes the case of one woman who was ostracised and forced out by her colleagues after she unwillingly admitted to having been treated for cancer, and the utter coldness and lack of loyalty with which supposedly valued employees are suddenly told "Get your things and don't come back tomorrow". Another high-performing woman executive, who had recently received glowing reviews for her work, was suddenly made redundant and, a few years later, was reduced to working for $7 an hour while her credit card debts had mounted to $75,000. When Ehrenreich commented on another woman's remarkable ability to laugh in her appalling circumstances, she replied, "I have no more tears".

Where "Bait and Switch" seems to me incomplete is in its refusal to contemplate improvements or remedies. Maybe that's because the situation is beyond remedy - in which case the world we inhabit is a lot more unpleasant and hopeless than most of us realise.
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on 26 April 2006
I only just started reading Ehrenreich's "sequal" to her exploration of blue-collar poverty in USA (Nickel and Dimed), and by chapter 2 I'm already laughing out loud - partly because Ehrenreich's dry and witty humour, even when dealing with not at all funny issues, partly out of despair; as a recent graduate and a seeker of my first professional job, the bizarre world of career coaching, networking events, and personality testing rings a bit too true. Recommended for anyone either pursuing or holding a white-collar corporate job!
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VINE VOICEon 1 July 2011
This is a terrific book that I read from start to finish (which is rare for me). She has just the right balance between reporting her hard-won personal experiences and explaining information from surveys and other sources. Although she is reporting the situation in the USA a lot of her points are also true to a large extent in the UK.

Although we have universal healthcare and more generous benefits, we still have far too much magical thinking and pressure for conformity. The ridiculous Myers-Briggs personality questionnaire is treated almost with reverence here as elsewhere. I loved the way she dug into the background and science of this questionnaire.

In summary: Intelligent common sense combined with fascinating and painfully familiar details of her experience.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2011
Barbara Ehrenreich did an excellent job of explaining and of enabling people not acquainted with the topic to understand the situation faced by millions of white collar workers, who are either unemployed or on the edge of becoming such.

She decided to join the ranks of the white collar unemployed, and to go through the process of job hunting, from using various job help consultants and services, networking, interviewing, to actually (hopefully) bagging a job to then report on the (expectedly wretched) existence of lower level white collar employees.

Not having read any of her previous books I cannot judge whether she is up to usual form or not but the book is very well researched and written. The author uncovers the difficulties, the so called support network, often very cultish, as well as expensive (and hardly a help in the end). Things such as how hard it is to actually get interviews, the various discriminating factors used by potential employers (age, gaps in the employment history, homemaking breaks...), and similar are portrayed very plastically. On top, it is shocking to observe how little actual performance or experience seems to count, when one is 'in transition' and desperately looking to re-enter the workforce.

While this presented only a project for the author, so no real hardship was involved, it still caught her unawares as to how demeaning it can get.

Given the topic, one would expect the book to be uniformly depressing but Ehrenreich manages to use her wry humour to best effect to offset this and make the book a surprisingly entertaining read as well. In spite of being at the very opposite part of the political and ideological spectrum, she does remind one of someone like P.J O'Rourke in many ways with her wit.

The aspect that costs the book the fifth star is the somewhat weak conclusion. While her undercover activity sufficed to uncover the main problems, the solutions seem significantly less well researched and much more driven by some preconceived notions, whether these be correct or not. Still, it will be an insightful book for people, who have never been confronted with the topic and those, who blindly believe that the unemployed need but try and a job is theirs for the taking - in the current environment a very important read.
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on 4 December 2011
Barbara Ehrenreich's dark and unquestionably depressing book exposes us to a world in which the human soul is repressed to a level that the great twentieth century monocrats could only have dreamed of. The irony is that she (and the book) suffer from the very fealty to a lief lord that the unfortunates with whom she mixes are also subject. For them it is utter subservience to the corporates, for her it is her publisher.

What is quite clear is that Ms Ehrenreich pitched one book but discovered another. Sadly, whether she was indeed pressured by her publisher or whether she just didn't see the elephant in the room, the book she has produced is an odd hybrid of the original idea and the potentially much more interesting one that emerges.

So now I'm going to ruin the plot; Barbara Alexander (aka Barbara Ehrenreich) does not get a job. Sorry folks, but in the opinion of this reviewer, if you're going to enjoy this book (and trust me you can), you need to know, from the outset, that her mission to go undercover in corporate America from the inside fails. However a publisher's press release which reads `Barbara Ehrenreich goes undercover in corporate America but doesn't' butters no parsnips so to speak. Sadly we are drawn in with a promise which remains unfulfilled presumably to put a positive spin on the failure of the premise and salavage some sales.

On the very last page of the book Ehrenreich flags `courage' as the missing ingredient amongst the employed and unemployed of American business. It's just this quality that the press for this book lacks. Whether the author of the publisher are at fault here are unimportant, what matters is that an opportunity to create a much better book has been missed.

However, don't let this put you off, just be aware of which dish you have before you. As Barbara Ehrenreich's alter-ego moves painfully through the murky world of America's white collar unemployed what emerges is not so much a story of the short-comings of American business, but a much more profoundly chilling and universal tale of the benality and redundancy of Western life at the end of its most shameful century. (Ok it's 2006 but eras seldom follow neat chronology!).

Here we have a tale that, as life imitates art, would have made Samuel Beckett proud. More relentlessly quotidian than Godot and more absurd than End Game, Ehrenreich uncovers the stories and characters from a dark, dystopian world that sees them chasing rainbows, worshiping false gods (often literally) and pursuing hopeless, eye-wateringly expensive dreams in the misguided belief that it will all end in the job that will give them back their lives, their social status and their dignity.

Towards the end of the book Ehrenreich's employs a strikingly effective metaphore in which the employed are in the castle and the job-seekers occupy the hinterland at the base of the ramparts. As she claws onwards towards the `citadel' she encounters the disillusioned on the way back. Most of her fellow job seekers actually profess a powerful urge not to return to the hell that exists inside the corporate walls. They long for a life that will break the fetters and give them back their souls. But as citizens of Communist Russia discovered, when stripped of party membership for some unnamed crime, the only recourse is to succumb to the death, whether real or virtual, that loss of membership will bring. It is not the Party (or corporate America) that has failed but themselves. The only route to salvation lies the endless worship of the Golden Calf however palpably it fails to deliver.

So please buy this book but be ready for one subtly different from that advertised. Barbara Ehrenreich is a likeable companion for 220 pages - unquestionably witty, indisputably intelligent and rigidly, but admirably principled.
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on 10 December 2006
I have to admit that I tried to read this book a few months ago and did not manage to get past the first chapter. A couple of days ago, however, a chance encounter with this book while stood musing at the content of my bookcase (in preparation for moving house), found me starting to leaf through, and actually enjoy the experience.

As I read through the book, I was more and more impressed with the effort that Ehrenreich put into her research (not to mention the amount of money she spent along the way). I have no doubt that she put her 'all' into the project and I genuinely shared the peaks and troughs of her jobhunting mission. I was disappointed with the final outcome, wanting her to have found success, but then I suppose the final outcome reflects the true-life experiences of so many of those that she met along the way.

Ehrenreich writes in an engaging style and in this book has portrayed the grim realities of being on the outside of the fortress that is Corporate America, 'with the wolves circling ever closer'.

Recommended read for anyone who is feeling just a little too smug and cosy in their corporate office job, particularly those with company health insurance...
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The above quote, from Robert Jackall, is included by Ehrenreich in her "Conclusion" section, and is a fitting summation of one of her themes. It is even truer today, as we have witnessed the enormous disconnect between the actual performance of corporate CEO's and their compensation. After their failings, virtually none do the "decent" thing, and resign; instead, they are the first in line asking for a huge government bailout, all the while preaching that others need to make "sacrifices." Sadly, now that the latest "house of cards" has come tumbling down, many more of the formerly employed will have the time to read Ehrenreich book as they network among their fellow unemployed.

Like numerous other reviewers who liked her previous book, Nickel and Dimed I felt this book was not of the same quality. In fact, I could not find a single reviewer who said this book was actually better. Also, like others, felt that she had much less empathy for these unemployed, and that she had not prepared herself properly for her search. Even worse, there is that barely disguised anti-Semitism, yes, the "other anti-Semitism." Although she did NOT exclude a tobacco company from her search, in the footnote on page 156, she says: "Qorvis's principal client, I later learn, is Saudi Arabia, which would have represented a considerable ethical stretch even for me." Yes, at a time in which America desperately needs interlocutors with the Arab world, and even though Ehrenreich is willing to "soil herself" with various ruses and even accept tobacco money, working with an entire Arab country is simply beyond the pale of her "ethics."

Still, despite her style and her biases, she does make numerous, quite valid points concerning the economy and the corporate world. All too often it is the individual who is urged to change, to modify their "personality." Ehrenreich warns of that industry that feeds off the unemployed: "when the unemployed and anxiously employed reach out for human help and solidarity, the hands that reach back to them all too often clutch and grab." This includes the high-priced consultants, as well as the church who use their programs as thinly disguised recruitment drives. Another truly excellent point concerned her revision of opinion on the no-nonsense efficiency of corporations: "But what I encountered was a culture riven with assumptions unrelated to those that underlie the fact- and logic-based worlds of, say, science and journalism--a culture addicted to untested habits, paralyzed by conformity, and shot through with magical thinking." (I would demur at least on her comparison with journalism.)

Her remedies for some of the deficiencies are widely accepted in the non-American industrialized world, such as universal health care, and a leap from "solitary desperation to collective action." Also, an italicized question in her conclusion section should be asked more and more in the future months, concerning the American economy: "what's wrong with this picture"? Yes, it IS us who need to modify our thinking... not in the way "career coaches" would like, but by questioning some long-held assumptions on the structure of our economy, and the willingness to adopt new solutions. Paul Goodman, where are you now that we need you? Ehrenreich raised some vital questions; her manner and style could have been better, and her solutions for incisive.

(Note: Review first published at Amazon, USA, on January 28, 2009)
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