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:

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