Making Change with Barbara Ehrenreich
Barbara Ehrenreich is the author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America, a gritty firsthand look at the life of the working poor in America. In her new book, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Ehrenreich goes undercover as she did for Nickel and Dimed, but instead of working low-wage jobs, she joins the ranks of the downwardly-mobile middle-class, navigating her way through the “transition” industry—a purgatory of career coaching and networking events where New Age aphorisms, Jesus-talk, personality tests, and “winning attitudes” rule the day. Ehrenreich spoked with us from her home in Charlottesville, Virginia, about her work and the troubled condition of work in America.
Barbara Ehrenreich: I didn’t start out in either book with the idea that I was going to act like somebody different. It was just me going to try this. Now, in Bait and Switch, that “me” had a different name and a false resume. But other than that I didn’t have any notion that I was going to act differently, that I was going to display such and such affect, or change my personality in any way. The shock was that in the world I entered as a job hunter, everybody’s acting. It’s all about acting. I mean, acting in a strenuous way. For example, the constant injunctions to be upbeat, positive. That takes effort. Well, it was probably an easier effort for me than my co-jobseekers because they were hurting. I wasn’t hurting. They were facing the loss of their homes and break-up of marriages and everything. And yet you have to beam this positive attitude at all times. I don’t think I was all that good at acting in the correct corporate way. It’s all about self-presentation. And it makes me worry about corporate America. They’re not that interested in what you can do, in skill, in experience. They’re much more interested in your “personality,” your self-presentation, your smiling affect, your correct clothing. They take personality tests very seriously, but the tests are nonsense. The tests have no legitimacy. There’s a very good book called The Cult of Personality, by Annie Paul, that confirmed my impression that the tests themselves are nonsense. Thank God that book came along. I'm not convinced that we divide up into neat personality types. I just don’t think it makes any sense. In my own life, most of the time, I’m quite introverted, as writers must be, alone by the computer. But then there are periods of really being out there, being on a speaking trip or lecture tour and constantly being “on” and meeting new people. They’re both me. But if people start thinking they can only be one or the other, employers are going to make mistakes in hiring.
conduit: At one point in the book you talk about the role of narrative and how it helps to make sense of one’s failures and successes. In the case of the Christian networking conferences you attended, God was playing the shaping role. But you also encountered a secular religion in the EST-inspired career coaching and networking events. Is there a religious quality to one’s job hunting narrative?
ehrenreich: Well, we could say they both have mystical qualities. I was amazed at the non-rationality of the part of the corporate world that I was encountering as a jobseeker. Coming from the outside I thought this is going to be a hyper-rational world. They’re concerned about the bottom line. They’re concerned about performance. They’re concerned about numbers and facts and reality and so forth. Well, that’s not what I found. How to put it? You’re interviewing me before anybody else, just about, so I don’t have my vocabulary down here, but “bonkers” is the word that comes to mind again and again. What I found was the very widespread theory that your thoughts can control the universe. You want to be rich? You think like a rich person and, guess what, the money comes to you. And the other side of that, if you're poor or having bad luck, it’s your own damn fault.
conduit: There’s no such thing as a victim.
ehrenreich: There’s no such thing as a material world.
conduit: There are no external forces.
ehrenreich: There are no external forces. It’s all mental. In Bait and Switch I talked about the kind of weird science that they’ll invoke to explain what your thoughts exert. Sometimes it’s a gravitational force, sometimes it’s a magnetic force that goes out there and rearranges the world to match your desires. This is such a deep assumption in the corporate world. I’ve just recently been reading through a whole stack of corporate books that I hadn’t read before. This is for an essay I’m going to write about the corporate advice genre, and it’s more of that stuff. Your thoughts, what you wish for, what you visualize, will happen.