Financial Times, February 18th, 2006
First it was blue-collar misery in America – now the writer has exposed the lot of its corporate workers, writes Tracey Taylor
As soon as I meet Barbara Ehrenreich, renowned chronicler of America’s working class, we are thrown into an awkward social moment. Our plan is have tea somewhere inside the swanky Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. We wander into a restaurant off the hotel’s lobby that looks appropriate but a woman behind a desk stops us and says we need to be club members to eat or drink there. As we turn on our heels, Ehrenreich mutters: “You see, you come somewhere as upscale as this – which I’m not used to at all by the way – and you think you have reached the top. Then you realise there is a whole other level.”
The incident doesn’t phase Ehrenreich. You sense that there isn’t much that would. This is a writer who chose to work as a waitress, stack shelves at Wal-Mart and clean “three different kinds of shit stains” from toilets as a housekeeper to gather material for her best-known book: Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. And this at an age when most people would be comfortably retired.
Ehrenreich, who is 64, has a brisk manner and a practical appearance: her hair is cut in a bob and she is wearing black trousers, a coral shirt and what she describes as “slouchy” flat sandals. She assumed a new identity to see at first hand how the other half live for Nickel and Dimed, which was on the New York Times bestseller list for almost two years after it was published in 2001.
The “immersion” style of writing is in the tradition of George Orwell, whose descriptions of coal miners in The Road to Wigan Pier aimed to shock middle-class readers out of their complacency. Ehrenreich herself has spawned imitators in the UK and Australia. Her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, (which comes out in paperback in the UK in March) takes the same approach but this time her focus is on the white-collar world – the middle managers and account executives who toil at the corporate coalface.
These are the people “who did everything right”. They earned degrees, postponed child-bearing and dedicated themselves to climbing the career ladder. But now, as Ehrenreich describes it, they are in trouble. Setting out to find a job as a PR director or speechwriter, Ehrenreich found a white-collar netherworld full of people who have been downsized or outsourced or were still employed but heard “the drumbeats of lay- offs”; or had survived cuts but were burning out doing the jobs of two people.
Ehrenreich found the project hard-going, she tells me, as we settle at a table in a rather soulless dining area where we have been assured we will be served tea. “It was more enjoyable with Nickel and Dimed,” she says. “I liked the camaraderie of the workplace. There might have been similar camaraderie in some white-collar places but I got the feeling that it is very different, that people are more anxious and mutually distrustful in the white-collar world. A lot of people described the workplace to me as cold and unwelcoming. “I don’t mind manual labour,” she continues. “And I like the straightforwardness of the blue-collar world in that there is a job, youdo it and you get paid fo rthe job. There is not all this . . . ” – she pauses before choosing a word that she thinks can be printed in the Financial Times – ” . . . this manipulation about attitude and personality.”
Ehrenreich, who has been gesticulating to make her point, stops talking and looks flustered. She explains she is concerned that our waiter, who is standing some feet away, may have interpreted her hand movements as a rather cavalier summons. She mouths apologies to him. Maybe her experience as a waitress explains why Ehrenreich is going out of her way to be nice to the waiter. (I, on the other hand, am feeling less sympathetic and would be happy if this particular one did his job: we have been in the deserted restaurant for more than 10 minutes and he has not yet taken our order.)
The manipulation Ehrenreich refers to is most apparent in what she discovers is called the “transition industry” – the career coaches who help reveal one’s “true occupational passion”. What Ehrenreich finds galling, rather than amusing, however is the message the coaches invariably impart to their vulnerable, often depressed audience, about blame. “I could see this philosophy being dumped on people – this new-age idea that it is really your fault because you control everything with your attitude,” she says.
The job-seekers Ehrenreich meets in the book seem prepared to take this analysis at face value. I ask her why she thinks that is. “I think this mind-over- matter idea is quite deep-seated in American culture. In fact, I encountered it and wrote about it when I was being treated for breast cancer five years ago. There is this strong ideology that it is all in your attitude whether you recover or not. It creeped me right out. You find it in the 19th century with Mary Baker Eddy, in the mid-20th century with Norman Vincent Peale and with EST (Erhard Seminar Training) in the 1970s.”
The waiter arrives to take our order and Ehrenreich again apologises to him for what he may have interpreted as her “uppity” behaviour earlier. She orders an iced latte – decaf, one shot, with 2 per cent fat milk. The waiter mishears and assumes she wants iced tea so she reiterates the minutiae of her order. She collects her thoughts and sighs. “I really don’t know what to make of the corporate world after all this. A great deal is being demanded of white-collar workers that has nothing to do with getting the job done. There seems to be so much emphasis on relationships: do you get along with people? They say 90 per cent of hiring decisions are based on an emotional response to you. I am so amazed by this world where decisions are so irrational, where there is a lot of delusional thinking going on – controlling the universe with your thought forms, for example. It makes me wonder how anything gets done.” She laughs: “Then I suddenly realised: this is the culture that leads to Michael D. Brown heading up Fema. I’m sure he’s likeable and he knew all the right people – dresses nicely, good-looking fellow. Probably a lot of fun to have a Margarita with.” [Brown was the Bush-nominated head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency who lost his job after what critics saw as a bungled response to Hurricane Katrina.]
Despite almost 10 months of searching and an investment of more than $5,000, Ehrenreich failed to find a job. She had honed her CV to perfection, had a makeover, networked frantically, and displayed admirable flexibility, “applying at one point for a job as PR director of the American Diabetes Association and then switching sides and offering myself to Hershey’s”.
“I now realise that it was a kind of hubris to imagine I could find a job in half a year or so,” she says. “As I got into it and began to meet all these seemingly terrifically well-qualified people who had been searchingfor well over a year, I thought, ‘this is what it is really about, the white-collar underworld’.”
So the book ends up being a call to arms. Ever the activist, Ehrenreich urges the unemployed, and the anxiously employed, to exploit the endless networking events they attend. “If people had been allowed to, say, share their stories, that would have broken through some of the feelings of isolation and worthlessness.”
She says she wants those that read the book to realise that it’s not their fault if they are being badly treated by companies. “I see it as a possible antidote to [the business tome] Who Moved my Cheese? which says, ‘You’re going to get jerked around, get used to it.’ I would like people to read Bait and Switch and think, ‘Yeah that was ridiculous’ – to feel free to have such a subversive thought.”
Ehrenreich advocates fundamental change at policy level, too: “There is a simple agenda: one, let’s get going on universal health insurance: having it attached to your job is ridiculous. Two, let’s have a more secure and adequate unemployment compensation. And third, let’s stop tax breaks and subsidies to corporations that are made in the name of job creation but actually have nothing to do with it.”
At this point Ehrenreich’s mobile phone rings and she excuses herself to see who the call is from. “I just want to check whether it is one of my children or someone else,” she says squinting at the phone’s small screen. “No it is a publisher,” she snarls, “To hell with you.” Her phone rings again and she frowns, making clear it is her publisher again. “I see that 212 area code [her US publishers are in New York], then my cellphone died as far as I’m concerned.”
So what does she see as the way forward for corporations? “We have to find ways to make corporations more accountable to the people they serve. I don’t think they just serve the shareholders – there should be a broader vision of stakeholders, which includes consumers, communities and employees.”
As we get up to leave, Ehrenreich points to the pretty three-tier cake stand on the table next to ours. It is filled with delicate sandwiches and petits-fours in pastel hues. “Look what we missed,” she says, grinning. But somehow the image of Ehrenreich sipping Earl Grey tea from a bone-china cup and nibbling on miniature cakes doesn’t quite cut it. The immaculately groomed ladies of leisure who are doing so are enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Ehrenreich is too busy fighting its flaws.