Evolving working world leaves workers unprepared

September 04, 2005|By Andrew Ratner | Andrew Ratner,Sun Staff



By Barbara Ehrenreich. Metropolitan Books. 256 pages.

In one newspaper job I had, co-workers and I began each day by debating issues and current events. During one discussion about anxiety over corporate downsizing, someone opined that workers needed to become "more nimble."

I could barely stop from making a sour face. The comment struck me as "corporate-speak" -- sugarcoating for how unstable the workplace had become. Nimbleness should be a job requisite for gymnasts and circus performers, not the rest of us.

For some reason, the remark became buried deep in my brain, but it resurfaced when I read Barbara Ehrenreich's latest, Bait and Switch.

A trained biologist turned social essayist, Ehrenreich was a columnist for Time magazine and contributor to other publications. But she is best known for critical books she's written about cultural changes wrought by the New Economy. With a Ginsu-knife wit, she pares the doubletalk, greed and artifice that have become too common in the world of work.

Ehrenreich approached her latest book about white-collar dislocation with some of the Plimptonesque methods she used for her 2001 book about blue-collar anxieties, Nickel and Dimed.

For that best-seller, she worked temporarily as a waitress, a house cleaner and a Wal-Mart clerk to chronicle the pressures of low-paid workers. In Bait and Switch, she masquerades as an out-of-work public relations professional in search of a job.

Her book is an astonishing trip through downsized America. Many who've suffered through the loss of a job will find her account affirming; those who haven't -- yet -- will find it chilling.

She oozes contempt for the job-placement industry, which she describes as ineffectual at best and predatory at worst. Employment counselors and resume coaches take people's money and provide little in return at a time when their clients have scant income or dignity to spare.

"When the unemployed and anxiously employed reach out for human help and solidarity," she writes, "the hands that reach back to them all too often clutch and grab."

She also offers some profound observations: for instance, how health insurance -- once a "fringe" benefit -- has become the 800-pound gorilla of employment. It's so expensive that it impedes companies from adding workers and causes great anxiety for the jobless without it.

The author pities lost souls she meets in drab, windowless conference rooms from Maryland to Georgia, although her sarcasm sometimes gets in the way. She portrays these castoffs from telecommunications, insurance and elsewhere as not terribly sharp, verbal or self-aware. Perhaps these folks found themselves on the street because they weren't all that worthy? I can't imagine the author believed that, given that her book -- and much of her published work -- concludes that millions of workers have gotten the short end.

As she makes clear, this is not your grandfather's economy. Perhaps it's a sugarcoated notion to think it should be. Work in today's global business world should no more be expected to duplicate work life of the 1960s or '70s, than work of that era resembled factory life a half-century earlier.

But the difference -- and this is at the heart of Ehrenreich's studies -- is that American workers a generation ago didn't pine for a long-distant era, wishing they would be toiling away in an Andrew Carnegie sweatshop, while many today do long for the expectations of the workplace long ago: corporate missions that seemed strong and tangible, devotion between employer and employee, secure pension plans. Certainty perished.

"Our society is so unprepared for this change," Ehrenreich writes. "College ... prepares people for jobs, but not for the trauma of job change."

I wish I had come away from Bait and Switch with a stronger grasp on how we arrived at, as the subtitle says, "the (futile) pursuit of the American dream," but the author's writing is taut and engaging. And her concept -- masquerading in search of a professional job -- does make you want to find out if she succeeds (even though, as the author acknowledges, play-acting joblessness is not the real thing.)

She concludes that this army of the out-sourced should campaign to change the corporate game. The thought is both inspired and naive. The would-be crusaders are, of course, also competitors for the vanishing high ground of job security. Perhaps, as the author discovered to some dismay, that's why there seems to be such sharing among the jobless of information, insight, even precious gallows humor.

Her exasperation with the fragility of the workplace reminded me of that "nimble" comment years ago that I thought dopey at the time, but was more prescient than I realized.

Within three years, none of the people in that discussion worked together anymore.

Andrew Ratner is deputy business editor at The Sun.

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