Bait and Switch

posted in: Socioeconomics | 0

Bait & Switch, is a natural successor to Ehrenreich’s earlier book: Nickel & Dimed (reviewed on this blog in part 1 and part 2). As an author I find her to be both honest and thorough in her research, and her topic area in both this book and its precursor have been particularly relevant to me. When I saw the book sitting on the shelves of Autumn Leaves, it was a must-grab.

The title eponymously refers to a con-artist tactic wherein the victim is led into the con with the promises of something alluring, only to find out that their hopes were deliberately misguided by the con-artist, who has replaced their desired object with something inferior that would not have drawn in the victim otherwise.

In this case, Ehrenreich explains, the “bait” is the prosperity of the American dream: pay your dues to society, study hard, forgo youthful indiscretions (or be quick to learn from them) and ye shall find your way to success and prosperity. The “switch” is the cold reality that white-collar middle-classed jobs have been commoditized to the point where “human resources” may as well mean “human chattel”. Gone are the days of 1950s-era pensions, single-company devotion, and long-term employment followed by autumn-year retirement.

In Nickel & Dimed, Ehrenreich explores the class of people (blue-collar workers) that are often marginalized because it is believed that they are in their predicament due to bad choices: impulsivity, laziness, irresponsibility. As a society, we have sold ourselves into the “work hard and you’ll be successful” idea as if it was a pure function: that the only thing holding you back from success is that you aren’t working hard enough. But in Bait & Switch, we see a class of people that did everything right: well-educated, hard-working people that rose through the ranks and suddenly had their career balloon popped through downsizing, streamlining, or whatever the current buzz word is for lay-offs.

Ehrenreich, adopting her maiden name Alexander, goes undercover as a middle-aged job-seeker wishing to join into the corporate world after freelancing for several years. Her ultimate goal is to secure a middle-class income ($50k-100k) at a private sector, regardless of who the employer is. At the risk of spoiling, she summarizes her journey best:

So, after almost seven months of job searching, an image makeover, an expensively refined and later upgraded resume, and networking in four cities, I have gotten exactly two offers: from AFLAC and Mary Kay. But these are not jobs, not in the way I defined a job when I started this project, in that no salary, benefits, or workplace is provided. … No one, apparently, is willing to take a risk on me. Is the fear that, if given health insurance for even a month, I will go on an orgy of body scans and elective surgery? The most any corporation seems willing to give me is the right to wear its logo on my chest and go about pushing its products. (p. 189)

But it would be completely unfair to say she was unsuccessful in her research; her journey of job exploration shines a high-powered spotlight on the trials and tribulations of the 8 million unemployed workers in America.

Discussion after the jump.

There were three main thrusts to Ehrenreich’s job-seeking strategy (hereafter referred to as “Alexander”), with frequent overlap between the components. She first worked with some career coaches to both determine what kind of work she was best suited for as well as refine her resume and prepare her for job-seeking. The majority of the book, after those initial consultations, involved “networking” or attempts at networking with other people, both job-less and job-having. While she only met with an image consultant once, to assist her with refining her “corporate look” (Ehrenreich is an academic, which has much looser standards regarding dress), the notion of “selling yourself” and adopting a mock persona was a frequent phantom throughout the text.

Consultation & Resume Building

Alexander begins by meeting with some career counselors, mostly to help her get her bearings, since she has spent the majority of her career in the insulated walls of the academic world. What she discovered seemed to be portentious of her journey: her counselors were preparing her by focusing on intangibles such as her “personality type” and “attitude”, there was lots of talk about learning the correct words to use, and of course polishing out that perfect, focused resume. Little attention was given to rationality or even reality itself, at times. Alexander quickly realized that her own skills, which were clearly suitable for public relations, were at best secondary to ensuring that her future employer liked her.

Initially, her reaction was a mix of puzzlement and frustration, followed by a sense of indignation, and then finally resigned acceptance. It seemed to completely bewilder Alexander that her potential employer would care more about how much they liked her rather than what skills she possessed. She was similarly frustrated by the use of personality tests, which I was surprised to learn have very little basis in any sort of actual science. Her consultants ran her through both an Enneagram assessment as well as the Myers-Briggs personality test. Some of her misgivings about both tests was that the questions seemed to be over-simplified: for the former, things like “am I special”, or “am I vengeful”; with the latter: “Do you usually get along better with (a) imaginative people or (b) energetic people.”

Alexander’s conclusion about these tests is that it’s a reflection of the objectification of white-collar workers by their superiors: if someone can be shoved into a category, they can be marginalized or elevated to the level deemed appropriate by management. It’s a way for people to surmise your identity without actually taking the time to understand the more subtle nuances about you, much how you might use keywords when categorizing books in a bookstore, for example; it’s far easier to dismiss a whole class of books simply because they are all grouped together in a corner under a category banner you don’t find particularly appealing.

The resume itself is another issue altogether. Technically speaking, some of the elements on Alexander’s resume were likely made-up, but not unreasonably so. She listed real experience where possible, and phoned in a couple favors for people to cover for her should anyone get to the point of due diligence. Nevertheless, she worked with her consultant to nitpick and wordsmith everything about the resume, and then began shipping it off to every place she could. She sent them to specific agencies and also used online services such as Monster.com and Hotjobs.com. Her resume submission, if any response was to be had, typically garnered an automated reply at best.

It is clear, both from her experience and mine, that the job market is well saturated with so-called “human resources”, so employers can afford to be very picky and selective about who receives extended offers. In worlds of abundance, people will go with what is familiar, which seems to be why “who you know” is more important than “what you know.”

Networking

The term “networking” always seems to invoke a sense of smarminess in my mind, often coupled with the idea of “yuppies.” In essence, networking means “meeting people,” but with the idea of making connections in a social circle that you wish to become part of. In a world where “who you know” is of paramount importance, networking is crucial.

Fortunately, Alexander’s coaches all underscored its importance to her and encouraged her to attend networking events and seminars. Strangely, these events turned out typically to be more similar to a “recovery group” (like Alcoholics Anonymous, but for the jobless?), or to be more about attitude changing / pep-talks than actual networking. Most of her efforts were targeting the Atlanta, Georgia region (at the time of her study, it had the lowest reported unemployment rate), so many of the networking events were rife with religious overtones.

In her own journey, it seems that towards the end she started to get a better hang of knowing where to go for actual networking, since she seemed to be honing in more specifically on high-value targets, rather than dithering around with the drift nets for lost souls in the sea of human resources.

One point that she brings up a number of times is this notion of attitude alignment. In the same way that corporations tend to deny responsibility for pretty much everything (ok, I’m editorializing) employees are expected to subjugate themselves into taking responsibility for whatever plight befalls them. Like a person who was recently dumped and given no reason for why the relationship failed, former employees of large businesses are discharged out of the blue, left to wonder and pick themselves apart. There are seminars that the jobless can attend that will attempt to help them make sense of the remaining scraps of their life.

Alexander, citing Richard Sennet’s “The Corrosion of Character,” says that people seek narratives, some sort of over-arching causal relationship between where they are now and what has happened to them. She encountered this most prominently in the religiously-affiliated networking events down in Atlanta.

The old narrative was “I worked hard and therefore succeeded” or sometimes “I screwed up and therefore failed.” But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort – working hard only to be laid of, and then repeating the process until aging forecloses decent job offers – requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institutional forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of your career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God. (p.142)

For a species that has this obsessive tendency to require an answer to “why?” for everything, trying to find some cosmic explanation for the erratic success & failure of the white-collar world can be maddening, particularly if you have bought into the mentality that whatever happens to you is not the fault of the business, but rather within yourself.

Corporations and other very large businesses are often compared to machines, clocks, and other complex organisms where all the individual pieces, cogs, whathaveyous must work in concert towards a definite goal. Hollywood used to fall back on this metaphor when a script needs some dialogue about why a character is being fired. This resonates well with the idea of the corporate “yes man,” the guy (not to be sexist, but men far outnumber women in the businessworld, and I would like to believe that the gentler gender has too much dignity to debase themselves with being a “yes woman”) who makes his way up the corporate ladder through mimicry; copying those immediately above him with the intention of being liked and promoted sooner.

One particular aspect of networking that Ehrenreich laments is that, as Barbara Alexander, she felt compelled to see everyone as a networking contact, a stepping stone. When she shook someone’s hand, it was always with the subtext “who does this person know and what can they offer me?” running through her mind, rather than “who is this person and what have they experienced” or anything more personable. In the process of self-commoditization, she has learned to commoditize others.

Ehrenreich, in her conclusion, brings this up in the context of personality tests, affability, and the requisite selflessness of modern business. Again, I believe this is the result of abundance in human resources – Businesses can afford to make whatever sort of demands they wish since the opportunity cost of doing so is minimized from an oversaturated market of workers. She quotes an article by Lucy Kellaway from the Financial Times entitled “Companies Don’t Need Brainy People”:

“Think what characterizes the really intelligent person. They can think for themselves. They love abstract ideas. They can look dispassionately at the facts. Humbug is their enemy. Dissent comes easily to them, as does complexity. These are the traits that are not only unnecessary for business jobs, they are actually a handicap when it comes to rising through the ranks of large companies” (p.229, emphasis mine)

Of course, this isn’t to say that corporate people are stupid; I actually think that using “intelligent person” is misleading. The real antithetical trait for most corporate environments (excepting the C-levels, where anything goes), is individualization. An intelligent person would be, perhaps, more able to express their individual identity through opportunities afforded to them by their smarts, and they might be well-read enough to be indignant about being treated poorly, so I can understand why the two terms might be conflated. I would argue that those sentiments tend to be echoed in the world of politics as well.

That said, whether it’s intelligence or individualization or something else entirely, it is clear that in a world of Profit/Loss reports, where everything can (and must!) be quantified and fed into a pivot-table on an Excel spreadsheet, the human components of this machine must be both reliable and interchangeable. Whether that latter trait is actually necessary for an efficient organization or if its just the desire of management to have their employees be easily replaceable so that they can be eliminated or outsourced is left to the beholder.

Selling Yourself & Image Management

Developing a resume, in essence, commoditizes oneself into a tangible asset that can be consumed and utilized. The complexity created by decades of life experience is distilled into a format that is read in a common language by the prospective employer, and all extraneous details that make us individuals are omitted for brevity and clarity.

It is then, of course, necessary to shop for potential buyers of your commoditized self. Networking connects you with those buyers, but proper image management of that product, as well as effective marketing, is an absolute necessity. Consumers (the prospective employers, in this case) need to be convinced that you are worth purchasing (hiring), and part of that is presenting an attractive product.

Physical appearance is part of this, of course. While having the good lucks of either half of Brangelina would certainly be helpful, the rest of us that are more humble in appearance can emulate (or distract from our lack of) pure attractiveness through better dress and personal grooming.

Alexander meets with an “Image consultant,” which is basically a makeup artist / costume designer that has specialized in the regional corporate culture. I admit to being completely clueless in this regard. That my suit jacket managed to match my pants (for most of my interviews) is nothing short of a miracle. I am fortunate that in the world of IT, having well-groomed hair is generally unnecessary, although I always had the presence of mind to at least shave and shower beforehand.

I am aware, however, of how important it is to be both likeable and accessible. Meeting a future employer is a lot like a first date, except that most employers don’t screw you until they’re kissing you goodbye.

The notion of “dressing the part” plays into the whole idea of being a good little cog and suppressing your individual identity. The Model T revolutionized the manufacturing industry at large by introducing re-usable parts and the assembly line. Corporations function as faceless entities by keeping all of their components reusable and interchangeable, like a giant juggernaut.

The attitude and likeability are just as important as the physical appearance, though. Alexander was reluctantly forced to suppress her political views on a number of occasions, in the interest of not creating an adversarial situation with potential networking contacts. She forced herself to endure the bigotry (of gender-, sexuality-, and class-bases) of her seminar leaders and consultants. The fact that she created an alternate identity, “Barbara Alexander”, is more than just a matter of convenience and secrecy: she literally formulated an entirely different person on the outside, hiding away her liberated and mouthy Barbara Ehrenreich self, all for the sake of hoping someone would like her enough to give her a job.

Aftermath

Whereas in my review of Nickel & Dimed, I had some realistic offerings for how things could be changed to make the labor landscape for the blue-collar workers a little more dignified, I don’t know that the same thing will be possible here. The problems that Alexander faced in her journey through the world of “those in transition” was evidence of a more systemic problem. Changing this particular labor-world would require something a bit more revolutionary and paradigm shifting, simply due to its scale.

The commoditization of humans, treating them as mere chattel, is partly a problem of economics; the sheer number of available workers far exceeds the number of available jobs, so employers can afford to be choosy. But it’s also a problem that originally faced the blue-collar world in the pre-FLSA industrial world, and they solved it through labor unions. Ehrenreich specifically suggests the ability for certain professions (those that require licensing and are, in some way or another, regulated through standards and oversight) to have autonomy and be more resilient to this commoditization is through unionization, either by proxy or literally:

To the strategy of professionalization, some occupations added the further protection afforded by unions: teachers, college professors, journalists – even some physicians – have banded together, much like steelworkers or miners, to defend themselves against arbitrary and autocratic employers (p. 233)

The recent stripping of collective bargaining rights for teachers is arguably done in order to make it possible to commoditize those workers again. Regardless of whatever rationale the talking heads on television editorial programs are providing, the unionization of those workers is what prevents them from becoming mere human resources.

Whether a formal union is formed or not, employees, both employed and “in-transition” are complacent in their willingness to subjugate to the demands of the employer. We are mistreated by our corporate overlords because we continue to allow ourselves to accept the lesser of two evils (the other being either unemployment or blue-collar / lower-wage work, depending on your own standards). With the recent propensity towards overseas outsourcing, which ironically is made possible because we allow ourselves to be made into inter-changeable parts, employees are even more willing to adopt a policy of full-on appeasement for their employers. Historically speaking, appeasement is generally not a sustainable strategy.

In an ideal world, of course, corporations would change their behavior and stop placing the bottom line above the threshold of dignity they provide for their employees; but I am not so naive as to hold my breath for that miracle.

As a potential employee, there are options. The easiest way to not lose the game is not to play: don’t work for the private sector. I’ve long avoided the corporate world simply because of the de-humanization that is required. Public sector jobs are usually more stable but usually pay slightly less. Not playing the game may require a re-assessment of one’s own consumerist desires, but it’s certainly doable.

For those with lots of free time and boundless energy, you could go into business for yourself. There are pitfalls, one of which is the irony that some of your business taxes may fund your competition, as large businesses will often shop around for the biggest subsidy / tax-break they can get from an area. It can also be quite challenging to compete with the prices of a much larger vendor, so working in the service sector might be safest.

There are conscionable businesses out there, and in my experience of job hunting, they tend to be run by younger “hipper” people. I once interviewed for etsy.com and despite being incorporated and having an impressive capital accumulation, they were very light-hearted and put a lot of emphasis on individual identity and personal expression. Google and Facebook, despite being very hard-working companies, also similarly consider their employees’ individuality to be an asset: Google is famous for its “20%” policy, where employees are allowed to spend 1/5 of their time (ie. “Fridays”) working on personal projects. Apparently some of their technological inventions have been the result of this 20% time. At Facebook, the CEO (Mark Zuckerberg) allegedly sits in a cubicle just like everyone else.

It remains to be seen whether the traditional waterfall model of business will ever be supplanted by something more distributed and laterally-oriented; I cynically suspect that as long as there are “good old boy” MBAs out there intending to make their first million before they turn 30, we will continue to see this archaic organizational structure and the undignified treatment that goes along with it.