Review: Bait and Switch

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

basOne of my first book reviews on The Simple Dollar was of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. In that book, Ehrenreich took a number of minimum-wage jobs and reflected on the challenges of the work and the difficulty of surviving on such a low income.

My review took Ehrenreich to task. My biggest problem with the book is that she could simply exit that lifestyle any time she chose and by simply “playing poor,” she couldn’t really understand what it was like to be poor. It’s an idea that was perhaps most popularly expressed in the song Common People by the band Pulp: You will never understand / How it feels to live your life / With no meaning or control / And with nowhere left to go / You are amazed that they exist / And they burn so bright / Whilst you can only wonder why

So why would I review another book by her? Frankly, it took me a long time to even choose to pick up another book by Ehrenreich (she’s written several), but I could not deny that, at the very least, Nickel and Dimed was well-written and approached some good ideas, even if I didn’t agree with a large portion of the book.

This leads us to Bait and Switch, in which Ehrenreich approaches white collar work in much the same way that she approached blue collar work in Nickel and Dimed. What does it take to get a white collar job? At what price does the American dream come? The subtitle of the book, The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, somewhat spells it out.

From the subtitle, one might think that this book would simply paint a negative picture of white collar work as a whole. I don’t think the book really does that at all; in fact, I found there were many good ideas in this book, but that they didn’t come in the expected way.

The general premise of the book is that Ehrenreich is a “professional in transiton” and is seeking out a new career path.

Finding a Coach in the Land of Oz
Ehrenreich opens the book by seeking out a “career coach” – someone who will help her navigate the sea of job postings and opportunities out there. Mostly, it seems that these people mix together a brew of personality testing (think Meyers-Briggs tests) with some cheerleading and a bit of job searching that anyone with a personal computer could do. From Ehrenreich’s description, the biggest thing the coaches bring to the table is enthusiasm and support – they mostly just accentuate what you already have, often for a high price.

Stepping Out into the World of Networking
From there, Ehrenreich attends some “networking” events where she’s meeting people who are, frankly, in the same situation she is in: seeking better employment opportunities. The obvious question here is what the benefit of meeting other people who are desperately looking to switch careers really is. Networking events tend to attract similar people – people who are trying to blaze a different path than the one they’re on. Are these the people you want to attach to?

Surviving Boot Camp
Ehrenreich then attends a career “boot camp” in which people are trained in how to become more effective (and more employable) professionals. Most of this seems to quickly devolve into very generic stuff like one would expect to find in The Secret (absurdly over-the-top “power of positive thinking” material) mixed with some vague notions that career coaching and networking can really help, which were discussed in the previous chapter.

The Transformation
The “transformation” mentioned in the title of this chapter is largely about physical appearance, as yet another consultant (with a bit of a sexist bent) seems to encourage Ehrenreich to focus heavily on her personal appearance in order to improve her career prospects. There’s a bit of sexism at play throughout this chapter, which does give some insight as to the challenges that women can have trying to work in a male-dominated world (that’s thankfully becoming somewhat less male-dominated).

Networking with the Lord
Here, Ehrenrech attends a Christian career event, where most of the ideas stated above are remixed with a Christian theme and often co-sponsored by a church hoping to gain members (apparently). In the end, much of this chapter turns into a discussion of the problems with the “prosperity Gospel,” which I found quite interesting. In short, this chapter gave a distinct impression that many Christian money seminars tend to be trying to merge two contradictory messages.

Aiming Higher
Ehrenreich chooses at this point (with no job success) to inflate her resume with some bogus jobs and other materials, which gets her foot in a few more doors but never really materializes. The one thing that seems to click, though, is a situation in which she gets an opportunity to show off her nascent management skills, taking charge of a team. This seemingly energizes her and attracts a bit of attention, but doesn’t really coalesce into anything. The lesson? Showing your skills to people is a very good thing.

In Which I Am Offered a “Job”
Ehrenreich gives multi-level marketing and network marketing a shot here, moving into areas where she’s essentially an independent salesman as part of a larger hierarchy. What she finds is that she’s dumping far more time and money and energy in than she’ll ever get out of it, despite all of the positive talk and rhetoric.

Downward Mobility
At this point, she starts to lower her job expectations quite a bit. She attends a job fair with no success, then gradually moves down the employment scale until she’s looking at entry level service positions (which are easy to come across, by the way). She muses for a bit on the idea that perhaps people are disappointed with their ability to get jobs because they are overinflating the type of position they should be looking for.

Is Bait and Switch Worth Reading?
This book is not a perfect career guide, nor is it a criticism of capitalism. Instead, it does something else – and does it very well. It shows you what not to do if you’re seeking the American dream.

You shouldn’t try to get a job you’re not really qualified for; instead, build up your own qualifications.

You shouldn’t believe that career coaches and workshops will really put you where you want to go. It comes down to you.

You shouldn’t believe that networking dinners will immediately connect you to the right person. Networking is something you do, not something someone else sets up and does for you.

You should recognize that success often comes with a long climb up a ladder, not an immediate leap to the top.

In short, this book makes a strong case that the people who are rewarded with success in America are the self-reliant and the self-directed. Coaches and such can help, but they only help in that they help mold a bit of what is already there. If you expect others to hand success to you on a silver platter, then, indeed, the American dream is a futile pursuit.

Bait and Switch is a good read that hammers home a vital point, and for that I definitely recommend it for some bedside table reading.

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21 thoughts on “Review: Bait and Switch

  1. I read this book a few years ago and remember finding the book and Barbara annoying. It bothered me that she never got around to applying for an actual “job opening” for the position she had decided to target and that she wasn’t qualified for that position.

    Your review does a great job of pointing out the real value of the book and the lessons to be learned from it. I, however, read it in anticipation of learning about – The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream.

    I tried giving her a second chance with Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. Exposing the “Positive Thinking” industry as a scam is usually the type of snarky subject matter I can’t get enough of, but she wasn’t able to pull it off. The book was boring, not well organized, and once again I wasn’t able to connect with her and found her annoying.

    I’ve never read Nickel and Dimed having read other reviews that felt she didn’t understand what it was like to be poor. After reading your synopsis I never will.

    p.s. I am enjoying your “Pieces of Inspiration” series.

  2. Kate says:

    This sounds interesting.
    I liked Nickled and Dimed for the simple fact that so many people who read it realized that they needed to tip better when they were eating out. Agreed that simply pretending to be poor doesn’t give one any idea of not knowing where the next dollar is coming from when there are hungry kids to feed or shelter.

  3. Yeah, that is pretty much that way it is. You figure out that the system doesn’t really work and that you have to do something else, like starting a blog or business of some kind.

    The worst part is if you ask for support in doing something else, no one in your family or friends or other support group will support you in this. It’s just too different.

    So what do you do? You accept the fact that you have no support and do it anyway.

  4. Adam P says:

    Trent, your review of Nickel and Dimed makes me seriously question if you ever read the book. The book starts with a huge caveat of her saying that the experiment is far from perfect because she can at any time leave and go back to her normal life and has advantages that real working poor do not have.

    On page 6 she says “I am, of course, very different from the people who fill America’s least attractive jobs…” and “With all the real life assets I’ve bulit up in middle age–bank account, IRA, health insurance, multiroom home–waiting indulgently in the background, there was no way I was going to “experience poverty” or find out how it “really feels” to be long term low-wage worker.

    She comes out and says right out what YOU say is your biggest criticism of the book, that she can’t know what it is like to be poor.

    So I have to ask, did you just skip the chapter where she says what she is doing?!?! If so, you’re a terrible book reviewer.

    Also, NEVER take a perfectly wonderful Pulp song to make one of your crazy points again, please.

  5. MikeTheRed says:

    It honestly sounds like she’s doing the same thing to white collar work that she did to minimum wage work: Playing at it.

    It’s hard for me to put my finger on why this summary irritates me so much. The list just feels fake in a way. While I know people go to boot camps, and get career coaches, stuff like that sits so far at the edges of the white collar world that I don’t think she’s giving an accurate portrayal.

    This feels like a book that would be written by an alien anthropologist who watched a bunch of late-night infomercials on “How To Get A Job” and wrote a book based off of those.

    Maybe the book is markedly different from the review, but from the summary everything comes off as fake.

  6. TeacHer says:

    I really enjoy Barbara Ehrenreich’s books, but Bait and Switch is probably my least favorite. I just didn’t find it particularly revelatory in the way that Nickeled and Dimed was. Maybe it’s because, growing up, all my adult relatives were white-collar workers. I knew plenty of people in minimum wage work, but they were all kids. I found Nickeled and Dimed interesting (actually, kind of horrifying) because I didn’t know any adults trying to make ends meet on a minimum wage budget.

    Her most recent book, Bright Sided, is particularly interesting. It’s not PF-related, but you might want to check it out. Ehrenreich basically argues that our American optimism is causing major damage to our mental, physical, and social health. It’s a great, short read.

  7. Dave M says:

    Is it worth reading? Yes, if you are interested in finding out whether middle-aged white collar people can really find any job opportunities, and looking beneath the surface of coaching, networking and other popular job techniques. The point I got out of the book was that even if you *are* qualified for a white collar job, these techniques are not very effective (and yes, I’m aware that the job market has changed since the book was written).

    Ehrenreich did not expect anyone to hand her anything. She tried to see what opportunities were available for someone with her resume and qualifications – and there were practically none. I’d say, ultimately, the point of the book was in what she didn’t say outright: it’s not WHAT you know, it’s WHO you know. Then it’s about whether who you know can and will ACTUALLY help you get a job.

    Oh, and Adam P, you are a rock star. I’ve read both books and you are right on!

  8. kjc says:

    @Adam P:

    This is what happens when you speed read! ;-)

    Like you, I found Nickel and Dimed evenhanded. It left me with a heightened appreciation for the folks I encounter working in, say, hotel housekeeping, and at diners and restaurants.

    I think Trent just skims these books, and all we see in these “reviews” is a mere superficial summary of each chapter.

  9. kristine says:

    Ditto Dave and Adam.

    I found Nickeled and Dimed Better, as I always thought networking events to be a crock, so the later experiment seemed a wasted of time. In Nickled and Dimed I will never forget her description of the working poor in trailers as “canned labor”, which is exactly how many companies see people.

    But Adam may not like that I find Will Shatner’s version (on Has Been) to be my all time favorite version of “Common People”. It was produced and backed by Ben Fold’s Five.

  10. Lisa says:

    I’m currently finishing up a full-time contract position and I am job-hunting, so I am interested in this book and in job hunting strategies. It doesn’t surprise me that Barbara didn’t find a job because it sounds like her job-hunting approach was very generic and she was looking for something outside of her area of expertise.

    Here’s my current job search strategy, since the big internet job boards are unlikely to have positions that I am qualified for. First, I made a list of everywhere within my commuting distance that I might like to work. I also added some specialized job boards that pertain specifically to my field, my geographic region, or both. I ended up with a list of about 50 employers and jobs boards, including 3 which I feel I should check every day and the rest which will be okay to check about once a week.

    I divided this list into 6 shorter lists- one for each day Monday – Saturday. Every day before I start work, I check that day’s list of sites and look for new positions I might want to apply for. I keep track of those postings and once a week spend several hours applying for the jobs I’ve found throughout the week. I have been doing this for 3 weeks, and so far have found 2-4 positions per week to apply for.

    If I don’t have a job lined up by the time my contract runs out, I’m planning to temp- since I feel like this might be the best way to get a job outside of my field if I’m not having any luck in my field. If there is anyone reading who is also looking for work while working full time, maybe my strategy will be helpful.

  11. I enjoyed reading your review.

    After reading Nickel and Dimed, there’s one thing that really stands out for me. This woman is a fabulous writer, and she’s a gutsy reportive journalist, any way you slice it. I wouldn’t want to do what she did.

  12. DougR says:

    Big value of Ehrenreich’s work in N&D, to me, was spelling out EXACTLY what subsistence-level/minimum wage working people are up against in America simply trying to get by–never mind building for the future. Her account also served to undercut my defenses (e.g. “But it’d be different for ME, I’m special, I would be able to find a way out…”) … well, no: go LIVE in that world and let me know how your ‘specialness’ works for ya! N&D was all about “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” and I look forward to reading this book for that experience … well, ‘look forward’ in quotes because it doesn’t sound like a terribly comfortable book to read. Accurate, perhaps, and important, but uncomfortable.

  13. Nancy says:

    #2 Adam P. is spot-on. Ehrenreich made it very clear in Nickel & Dimed that the book was not a perfect experiment because she could always go back to her middle-class life. She was doing what undercover journalists are supposed to do.

  14. Interested Reader says:

    I read Nickel & Dimed and I also read some criticism about it, but that was mostly in forums from people who the working poor and talking about how Ehrenreich could have made better choices. One criticism was the lack of roommates or shared housing and maybe ways her food budgeting could have been better. But no one was upset over things she clearly articulated in the book – that this was an experiement and she could have left at any time.

  15. AniVee says:

    #2 Adam P – I do think Trent read the book and that his comments are spot on.

    Trent, I’m deighted that someone detested “Nickel & Dimed” as much as I did – it was, disclaimers or not, a totally bogus piece of investigative journalism –

    The author didn’t try very hard (less than 4 weeks in each job? Hah!) at any of the three jobs and blew off one interview because she was “totally exhausted” – She didn’t go to another interview because she had (apparently)been smoking dope the night before and the company had the gall to want drug testing of new candidates.

    She had a car, she quit jobs by just not showing up, she sneered at home owners because they had the effrontery to have olive oil and balsamic vinegar in their cabinets… in short, she didn’t act in the least like a person who really needed the job.

    The most amusing part was that, when she told her fellow house-cleaners that she was really an undercover journalist doing an investigation, they were totally unimpressed (as was I) and didn’t seem to believe her!

    The one excellent thing about the book was how it highlighted the total lack of available housing for persons without family or contacts at that economic level, and the portrait of the (Indian?Pakistani?Bangladeshi?) wife of the motel owner was heartbreaking.

  16. Adam P says:

    AniVee–I think you make some fair points about what Barbara did right and wrong with her jobs/job interviewing and quitting or not. She didn’t go as hard core as a really intense journalist might go, and said that right in chapter 1. A really intense journalist might have jeopardized their health and safety by sleeping in their car at night when they couldn’t pay rent, for example.

    BUT –

    I really disagree with you that this lack of hard core sacrificing causes the book to be a “totally bogus peice of investigative journalism”. (Also, “bogus”? Bill and Ted called, they want their adjective back.)

    Despite her not putting herself at risk of rape or injury, the book was very well received including an amazing review by the New York Times Book Review.

    You’re free not to agree with them, but I think it’s EXTREMELY negligent of Trent’s review to disparage the book for not being authentic to the really poor when she starts out the book explaining that it is not meant to be authentic to that degree.

    I think he wrote the first paragraph of this blog post simply because he desperately wanted to work in the in-his-mind oh-so-clever Pulp song reference…

    I agree with you that it was amusing how she revealed she wasn’t poor at all but merely a writer to the maids and they gave a big “whatever” to her. And the plight of affordable housing for the working poor was great too. I enjoyed her trying to get food from the food banks as a member of the working poor who hadn’t gotten a pay check yet, and her choices were very poor nutritionally.

  17. Cindy Brick says:

    I also was not impressed with either ‘Nickel and Dimed’ and ‘Bait and Switch.’ Too many condescending comments, and too quick jumps to expensive digs and convenience foods (in N&D)…then griping about their high prices. She could have chosen much more wisely.
    I get the feeling that she has already decided what she thinks (and will find) during these test-drives, then makes decisions during them that will rubber-stamp her final conclusions. “See??” she crows. “I was right, all along!”
    The good points (like understanding how difficult some of these jobs are, like Walmart) are then totally lost.
    Wait until you read her book BRIGHT-SIDED. This time, she goes after people who dare advocate a positive attitude about having cancer — and other things. Again, she’s got some good points, but I have trouble tweezering them out of the sniggering and condescension. Sad.

    http://www.amazon.com/Bright-sided-Relentless-Promotion-Positive-Undermined/dp/B003P2VDC4/ref=ntt_at_ep_dpt_4

  18. Moquis says:

    I’ve read both of these books, and it really helps to know a little bit about what Ehrenreich is about “in real life”. . . if you can call her’s that. .. . .if you look at her wikki you’ll quickly grock that she is. . . a radical feminist with an ax to grind. Clearly, spent a LOT of time at college like, gets a PHD and then decides . . . not to do anything with it. But skipping to the punchline, why would anybody read a book about how hard it is to make it in the white collar world by somebody who, 1) doesn’t live there, and 2) isn’t any good at it? Even college grads get SOME counseling and guidance before going out. . .

    The most offensive part of this is that fundamentally, she has to lie her way through the interviews and the sessions – she just isn’t what she says she is. There’s a moral boundary that is crossed here, wasting people’s time and energy to make a point that she isn’t going to prove. She can get away with it in Nickel and Dimed, because, well, they are min wage non-skilled jobs – they don’t care what your background is.

  19. Katie says:

    I thought she was very honest about some of the poor choices she made and that that was part of the point of the book. Lots of people think that the working poor are poor because they’re lazy or stupid or make poor choices all the time. And here’s an educated, wealthy woman and when she’s in that situation – she makes some of the same poor choices (or worse ones) that anyone else does. Part of the whole issue the book was uncovering was (a) she isn’t necessarily where she is in life because of intrinsic skill or talent or hard work and she was very honest about that, and (b) poor people aren’t necessarily there just because of poor choices or mistakes that they make. Rather, there are systemic failures that lead to those poor choices and disproportionately punish poor people for making them.

  20. jim says:

    I didn’t care for Nickeled and Dimed. I read the entire book cover to cover just so you know. I don’t disagree with her thesis that low wage jobs are difficult. I just disliked a lot about how she went about demonstrating that. If you set out to fail at something then its not very hard to fail.
    There was a lot of biased crap in her book as well. She has an obvious anti Christian mentality and is a “recreational drug user”. She went on at length about her fears about passing a drug test and how the evil corporations are subjecting people to drug tests because of the “demeaning” effect they have. Total garbage.

    But it was an interesting read and as I said I don’t disagree with her thesis.

    I wish I could get paid to write a book on a topic like (for example) how hard dieting is and then prove it by eating lots of fast food, smoking pot and complaining about Christians.

  21. Lisa says:

    Y’all! Both these books are meant to be a CRITIQUE of our broken, demeaning way of thinking about work and workers and ourselves as workers! They’re in response to the “Who Moved My Cheese?” movement and all the books that blame YOU if you can’t get ahead, while offering zero critique of the dominant economy. Including- and I say this as an active church member- the wholesale, putrid sellout to these business “gurus” by a lot of the big church movement.

    I think we miss the point if we read her as entertainment. She’s a political writer. These books are meant to change the way we think and vote. I’m glad you read them, Trent.

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