While I was flying back to NYC last weekend, I read (yet another) book about job hunting. This book detailed the obvious; that searching for a white-collar job is not as easy as you might think, as you’ll learn in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich (NYC: Metropolitan Books; 2005). In this book, Ehrenreich posed as an unemployed white-collar worker, in search of a job in public relations and event planning. To avoid being identified as a journalist via a Google search, she legally changed her name and, relying on her past (real) work experience, actively markets herself. For the book, her goal was to obtain a corporate job that pays approximately fifty thousand dollars per year with health benefits. Her plan was to keep this job for three or four months, write about her experiences, and then quit. To find this job, Ehrenreich earmarked five thousand dollars for travel and other expenses connected with her job search — a generous sum, in my opinion.
But instead of chronicling the trials and challenges of the average white-collar employee working in a large corporation, the author never actually manages to get her desired position in the first place and only succeeds in getting one (or was it two?) interviews during the entire ten months of her job hunt. So faced with a ten month investment in a fruitless (and expensive) job search, Ehrenreich instead writes about the white-collar long-term unemployed people, those people who “did everything right” by “playing by the rules” only to find their lives crumbling around them anyway. She writes about all the people out there who prey upon desperate unemployed professionals who are “in transition”. These predatory people masquerade as career coaches and as speakers at job hunting “boot camps” and religious ministries. As an undercover job seeker herself, she also subjects herself to those ridiculous personality tests that employment agencies and employers use, reads books that are supposed to help ease one’s job search, posts her resume on several internet job sites, attends job fairs and networking events, all in pursuit of those elusive employers “out there” who cannot find the qualified professionals that they so desperately seek.
As a social commentary, this book is spot-on, although incomplete. Ehrenreich finds that human resource departments rarely acknowledge receiving an applicant’s resume; that many corporate managers use interviews to try to convince a job seeker to settle for a lesser job with no benefits or job security; and that corporations prefer to fire good employees rather than allow the CEO and his cronies to forego a promised pay hike. Along the way, the author also exposes the bias that exists for gender, age, and looks. Finally, and most damning, Ehrenreich finds that the jobless are routinely persuaded that they have only themselves to blame for their situation. This, despite the fact that hiring managers will only consider a job candidate who is perfect in every way; without any health or credit or personal issues, no employment gaps or rapid job moves, or unusual employment changes. In short, this is how the employment market really works. Eventually, when she is unable to find a job — any job — at all, Ehrenreich asks herself the same questions that everyone else asks themselves under the cover of night; do I lack charisma? Am I too old? Too unattractive? Is it unrealistic in today’s market to have a decent job with health benefits?
Even though this is a good book, it could have been dynamite: Unfortunately, Ehrenreich only touches briefly on the darker aspects of a long-term job search, never exploring it deeply. I think this is possibly due to the profound shame that unemployed professionals feel, causing them to remain silent about their situation, even amongst each other, at least until their trust has been gained through mutual suffering. But Ehrenreich could have written about the people whom I’ve met and gotten to know during my own fruitless long-term job search. For example, she could have written about the man in his early fifties who lost his wife and children and home one year and ended up sleeping in his truck for another year while searching for a job, his suit carefully hung from the clothing hanger above the window; or the man in his mid-forties who lost his job while employed overseas and ended up stranded in Singapore until a group of sympathetic strangers gathered the funds to fly him back to the United States; or the man in his mid-thirties who was an adjunct professor at a Manhattan university living in a local shelter and subsisting on solely peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and canned tuna; or the man in his early thirties who sold all his possessions on eBay so he could pay his rent for another few months before he was evicted; or the woman who was a recent college graduate trying to survive while paying her student loans by delivering pizzas from her rickety and unreliable car; or even me, who tried to survive on an unpredictable patchwork of adjunct professor and private tutoring positions and pet sitting jobs for more than three years until I was fired by the university and ended up in a mental hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt.
Because she didn’t get many job interviews, Ehrenreich never had to endure the interviews that I and my fellow job seekers were subjected to while smiling through gritted teeth; interviews where we were asked to explain how we will merely survive or afford health insurance on the paltry wages offered by the job we were interviewing for; interviews where we were demanded to explain, in detail, gaps in our employment history; where we were asked about our health and our family’s health, or where us women were asked about our marital status or whether we have, or plan to have, kids. Additionally, Ehrenreich never became “downwardly mobile”; she never decided to pursue a job that was far outside of her experience or “beneath” her qualifications, as many of the professionals whom I know have done. If she had done so, she would have discovered that, in downward mobility, there is an astonishing bias against her work experience and educational level — all of which are rationalized by employers who claim that a professional will either become hopelessly bored on the job or will leave the moment a better job becomes available, nevermind that both situations are true for anyone that they could hire. But of course, like me and my fellow white-collar job seekers, if Ehrenreich had left her professional experience off her resume, as many people recommend, she would have created an inexplicable and unacceptable gap in her employment history which would also disqualify her from being hired.
Another unfortunate thing that often happens to white-collar job seekers after their interview, when they supposedly are hired for the job, they must then “pass” a credit check, which they could instead flunk, especially if they’ve been unemployed for a long time. But Ehrenreich never explored this because she never had the opportunity. Unfortunately, this credit check serves to do nothing more than separate long-term job seekers whose credit has been damaged or destroyed from those who have only been on the job market for a few months, effectively punishing long-term job seekers by relegating them to perpetual unemployment or underemployment in an unpredictable string of cash-under-the-table jobs as a house cleaner or pet sitter.
This doesn’t include the other forms of corporate gate-keeping; all those other checks and tests that potential employees must also “pass”, particularly those mysterious personality tests (don’t even get me started on those!).
What do I think professionals should do to avoid this predicament? White-collar employees should expect that everything, especially their career, is temporary and will disappear from their lives suddenly and when they are most vulnerable. Once they are unemployed, they should expect to remain so for a long period of time (at least for six months and probably for two or more years) at least once in their working lives, and they should plan accordingly. My advice is to always save as much money as possible to keep yourself from having to live on the streets. Even if you manage to get a good job that pays well, keep your living expenses as low as possible and NEVER go into debt for anything, including your education and housing. Even after you have a “real job”, continue learning new (and marketable) skills, such as bookkeeping or a new computer language. And — as a reserved and self-effacing person, I have particular trouble with this one — always market yourself for your next position to your family, friends and colleagues.
So why should you read this book? Because everyone knows someone who is or will be unemployed, or they themselves will be. This engagingly-written book provides a brief but disturbing glimpse into the world of white-collar unemployment where no one is special and everyone is expendable. It touches on the exhaustion, isolation, sense of betrayal, self-blame, desperation, depression, hopelessness and even the permanent damage that long-term job seekers experience. Unfortunately, this book does not present anything that resembles a solution to the problem in my opinion, although I think it serves as a powerful wake-up call that should cause one to deal more compassionately with relatives and friends who are unlucky enough to be among the white-collar unemployed in America.
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestseller, Nickel and Dimed. She is a frequent contributor to Harper’s and The Nation, and has been a columnist at The New York Times and Time magazine.