Friday, December 29, 2006

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

by Barbara Ehrenreich (NY: Metropolitan Books, 2005)

[Guest review by Elayne Clift]

I’m old enough to remember “the man in the gray flannel suit” whose future was assured as long as he slogged off to an office cubicle every day, loyal to the corporation that rewarded his fealty with a proverbial gold watch. But I’m also young enough to be intimately aware of the new corporate culture depressingly described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Bait and Switch.

In her 2005 book, Ehrenreich lays out the reality of a world in which unemployment, underemployment and “anxious employment” prevail among America’s white-collar, shrinking middle-class. Ehrenreich went underground (as she did in Nickel and Dimed) to research the plight of professionals who have been downsized, outsourced, and otherwise displaced, often because they excel at their jobs, thereby commanding higher salaries and benefits. She describes a world in which competent, formerly successful people sink further into the morass of the modern work world, a world in which they have become disposable.

I could have been one of her research subjects. Not once but three times over the course of my midlife career I was pushed out of an organization or institution for which I’d performed well and to which I felt deeply committed. In my case it wasn’t because I made buckets of money; it was that I threatened someone above me, usually for truthtelling, which can morph into the perception of disloyalty, when in fact it is exactly the opposite. In each case, I spent more time than I care to remember job-searching, becoming despondent, and belittling myself in the name of being “realistic.” The first time it happened I was unemployed for three years. I grew morbidly depressed. Then I wrote an article about the experience in which I compared prolonged unemployment to three disease processes: First, the unemployed are treated as if they have a communicable disease. Stay away or you might catch it! Given enough time the long-term unemployed experience Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. PTSD-like nightmares flare up in which you go over ad nauseam what went wrong. Finally, one begins to experience the death and dying of his or her professional persona. First articulated by Elizabeth Kubler Ross for the terminally ill, the stages include denial, anger, bargaining (with God), depression and acceptance. I share this because I understand what people experience when subjected to the harsh consequences of today’s economic reality. But enough about me.

What Ehrenreich has put her finger on is the fact that the middle class in America is in trouble and may be disappearing. Economists have fancy terms for discussing the phenomenon. They talk about “income volatility”and something called the “knowledge economy.” Layoffs become“downsizing” or “outsourcing.” In an article for The Nation (11/6/06), Ehrenreich shares these compelling facts: Those who try to compete by earning graduate degrees often find themselves in debt in excess of $40,000 before they get started. And starting salaries are insufficient to cover healthcare, housing and energy costs. At the same time, benefits are shrinking rapidly. More than 20 percent of working college graduates [in the US] now have no health insurance, up from 17 percent five yearsago. “This is the new world of the middle-class,” Ehrenreich writes, “haunted by debt, stalked by layoffs, pinched by vanishing pensions and health benefits, and forced into ever more contingent forms of work as ‘real’ jobs give way to benefit-free contract work.” The middle class, she says, now “hover just inches above the working poor.”

That’s why Ehrenreich and other activists have formed United Professionals < >. Modeled on AARP [the American Association or Retired Persons] and with start-up funds in hand, the membership organization has three main goals: community building to combat the stigma attached to unemployment; advocacy on issues such as universal health care and social security regulations; and services like legal advice. Says Ehrenreich, “By focusing on the troubled middle class, we help make the point that poverty, far from being a matter of ‘bad choices’ or character flaws, can happen to any of us.”

Reading Ehrenreich’s important if upsetting book reminded me of a young woman I met recently. Young and vibrant, she was a voluntary “commercial sex worker.” In other words, a prostitute. A graduate of one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country and now working on a master’s degree in psychology, this is what she told me: “I did all the right things. I excelled at the best schools, networked till I was blue in the face, dressed for success for hundreds of interviews. But I couldn’t get a job. So I went straight to the big boys with the big bucks. Now a big part of my job is eating a lot of steak and shrimp.” What do you say to a smart, energetic, entrepreneurial twenty-three year old woman who’s already lost hope of attaining dignified work? I wish when I met her I’d known about United Professionals. It might at least have been a start.

--by Elayne Clift


Elayne Clift is the author of many books. Find descriptions of them and a bio of Elayne at:

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Women and Children First

by Michele Landsberg (Markham, Ontario, Canada: Penguin Books, 1983)

[Review by Frieda Werden]

As a fairly recent immigrant to Canada (2002), I have catching up to do about Canada's feminist history. This book helped a lot. Michele Landsberg was a columnist for a number of newspapers, notably the Toronto Star, and also articles editor of Chatelaine magazine for seven years. ( Chatelaine, according to Canadian feminist media activist Judy Rebick, was a mainstream magazine but also so feminist that when US founding feminist Betty Friedan was trying to place some excerpts from her then-forthcoming book The Feminine Mystique, Chatelaine rejected it as being too old hat. )

In the Introduction, Landsberg describes herself as "neither a radical nor a traditionalist... a committed feminist who is also a monogamous wife and devoted mother." In those roles alone, she appears to have had quite an impact: her husband is Stephen Lewis, who is currently [2006] advocating for a much more powerful and better-funded organization for women at the United Nations; one of her three children, Avi Lewis, is married to and works with Naomi Klein (whose own mother, Bonnie Klein, made the anti-pornography film Not a Love Story); Landsberg and Lewis's two daughters, Ilana and Jenny, are both described as feminist in an article on the Stephen Lewis Foundation website ( ) .

Women and Children First was my travel book on a recent trip to Jordan, and it made a big impact on me. For one thing, Landsberg advocates passionately on behalf of maternal leave, breastfeeding, and childcare. In light of the recent abolishment of the very new Canadian national childcare plan by the recently-installed Conservative government, this reading gave me a huge pang for more than 23 years of feminist effort and advocacy for the childcare cause in Canada -- finally come to fruition and then cruelly set back by Bush-wanna-be Stephen Harper and his Republican clones.

The essay on breastfeeding evokes a kind of sensuous motherhood rarely seen in print [see my previous blog entry on Sharon Olds, for another author with similar sensibility], but it isn't in the least sentimental. Landsberg explains that as infants are "dependent, with a ferocity of need that non-parents simply can't imagine, an immediate response from the mother is the barest minimum of courtesy." In another paragraph about negative responses to breastfeeding in public, she writes,
  • It's hard for new mothers to understand that mentality which associates loving nurture with obscene sexual display. But there it is. Two warring views of the world. Which shall prevail? The babies , of course, must have right of way.

I really like it about Landsberg that she keeps building bridges between the personal world and the political world. We did used to say that "the personal is political" -- and it still is.

Each chapter in this book consists of a group of Landsberg's columns from the Toronto Star, sewn together by later-written integuments. A particularly trenchant chapter is called "Our Bodies, Men's Rules." It includes columns on

  • an all-female mental women's mental health clinic
  • the reality of menstrual cramps (it's not "all in your head") and a new treatment using anti-prostaglandin drugs
  • toxic shock syndrome and the shocking revelation that "feminine hygiene products," including tampons, required no government testing or labeling (unlike condoms)

and goes on to deliver a smashing indictment of the encroachments of anti-abortion extremists, and a caring view of women's right and necessity to make their own decisions about their bodies.

Another chapter takes on a myth that is still being pushed in major newspapers of Canada (and the US) today -- the idea that somehow there is a conflict going on between feminists and mothers. Landsberg writes

  • many women I know manage to combine feminism and motherhood in a comfortably pragmatic blend. They are aware that the price of motherhood is very high, and feel that the cost should be shared more democratically than it is now. Feminists have been among those who fought for more humane childbirth, maternity pay, day care, neighbourhood support centres, and a heightened social empathy for the tasks of parenthood... less singling out of mothers when things go wrong.

If you want to know the history of the sexual equality clause in the Canadian constitution, you can find it in here, too. As all equality-seeking activity has just been removed by the Conservatives from the mandate of Status of Women Canada, this, too, is very current and may help us in winning the next round.