Bait and Switch

Barbara Ehrenreich Shows How Not To Look for a Job
New books dissected over email.
Sept. 6 2005 6:33 AM

Bait and Switch

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Dear Alan,

I did not expect to like Barbara Ehrenreich's new experiment, recounted in Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream,but even so I am disappointed. The main thing I learned is how not to look for a job.

Ehrenreich gives up her identity and sends around a vita for media/public relations work. After a year of looking—with comic adventures along the way—she has no serious offer. She concludes that the white-collar world is one of "economic cruelty."

Our sleuth makes a mistake analogous to the one that marred Nickel and Dimed. In that earlier experiment, she entered life as a low-income worker, yet without many support systems. She had no church, no family, and no reliance on friends for financial or even moral aid. It is no wonder she found life so tough and capitalism so demoralizing. She lived an ordinary "lower class" life, yet with upper-middle-class, modern, academic morals and methods.

This time she cuts herself off from networks and personal contacts. She does recruit some friends to lie for her and back up her vita, should anyone call and ask about her past. But there is not a single voice to spread the word about her. Nor can she fall back on accumulated experience and contacts, for that would reveal her identity. So, she stalks the job world as a paper ghost. Alan, I wonder what would you—as a rational employer—make of a 60ish-year-old woman who appears out of nowhere and has no pre-existing contacts, offers, or networks? And what job is more a matter of personal contacts than public relations?

Ehrenreich is clueless when it comes to job searching. The book jacket describes her "series of EST-like boot camps, job fairs, networking events, and evangelical job-search ministries. She is proselytized, scammed, lectured, and—again and again—rejected." The reader is never sure if she goes through all this to express her contempt for the participants in those enterprises, or if she truly believes this is the best way to look for a job. At one point she visits a Web site and pays $200 an hour for a weekly phone consultation; she is then told to fantasize about her ideal job. A worthy anecdote, yes, but should I assume this very smart woman was doing her best?

Nor was Ehrenreich a model interviewee. For one meeting she was late. She was asking for salaries of $60,000-$70,000, and at least once she asked for $100,000. Her (phony) résumé is stacked with a long succession of short-term contracts, none showing much commitment. One interviewer tells her she seems "angry."

This book could have, and should have, addressed two very real concerns. First, although the U.S. economic recovery appears robust, labor markets still show signs of slack. Larger-than-expected numbers of workers have stopped looking for work. Wages are flat even though measured unemployment is falling. Anecdotal evidence does not suggest a rush to hire labor. Something is plaguing labor markets, but we do not know what. Second, might there be bias against women in their 60s or perhaps against older workers more generally?

These are important questions, but Bait and Switch does not help us answer them. Ehrenreich tells us she met many workers in situations just like hers, but these other cases are not explored in any detail. We need a broader analysis of which white-collar workers—ones who are really looking for work and have real employment histories—are having problems and which are not.

On the topic of practical experience with a process, let me offer mine. Through my work in my university, I have been involved in interviewing, hiring, and working with a media and PR person. First, we knew people who knew the hire; personal recommendations were an important signal of quality. Second, had a candidate behaved as Ehrenreich did, she would not have made the first cut.

Alan, can you muster more enthusiasm for this book?
Tyler

Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and general director of the Mercatus Center and blogs at www.marginalrevolution.com. Alan Wolfe is professor of political science and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. He is writing a book on whether American democracy still works.