Immersion journalist Barbara Ehrenreich finds that landing a middleclass job is more of a challenge than surviving on lowwage work

You can’t exactly call Barbara Ehrenreich the left’s answer to David Brooks. But if the conservative New York Times columnist’s book-length observations on the lives of the comfortable (Bobos in Paradise, On Paradise Drive) qualify as “comic sociology,” as he calls his genre, then the liberal Ehrenreich’s latest books make her as much anthropologist as journalist, and one who can be, on occasion, equally comic as she stumbles through life among select groups of the economically insecure.

In Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich waits tables, scrubs bathrooms, and stocks shelves in Wal-Mart to experience for herself the realities of low-wage work, which she shows to be as absurd as they are backbreaking and budget-defying. In her new book, Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich—legally changing to her pre-marriage name of Barbara Alexander—goes after a modestly middle-class job, one she hopes will give her $50,000 a year and health insurance. Ironically, she has less success. After almost a year of trying—hundreds of résumés sent out and thousands of dollars spent on job coaches, job-seeker boot camps, and networking seminars of dubious utility—this author of a dozen books and frequent contributor to Time, The New Republic, and The Nation (and who took a couple of months off from her job search to write op-ed columns for The New York Times) finds herself unable to land a job as a “communications professional” in the corporate sector. But along the way, she learns plenty about being “in transition” in the professional-managerial middle class, a condition she finds fraught with ambiguity as well as insecurity, as qualifications seem to take a back seat to appearances.

The journalistic mission of illuminating life at various (but always precarious) levels of the economic food chain by means of immersion came late to Ehrenreich, whose previous writings consisted mostly of analysis and social commentary. And it came by accident, she says, the result of a lunch with Harper’s editor Lewis Lapham at which the conversation turned to one of her favorite topics—poverty —and the then-raging debate over welfare reform. In an unguarded moment, she suggested that Lapham “find someone to go out and do the old-fashioned kind of journalism and try it for themselves”—try to get by working the kind of jobs that would be available to former welfare recipients.

“Now, I did not mean me,” she explains by phone from her home in Charlottesville, Va., to which she relocated from her Nickel and Dimed home base of Key West, Fla., in order to be near her daughter, who has a position at the University of Virginia Law School, and her two grandchildren. “I didn’t really know how to go about it. I’d not only not done this particular kind of so-called immersion journalism, I hadn’t even done a lot of reporting. Most of my work is essays, so it was a completely new experience.”

But it’s one she has made the most of. Her chronicles of her times as a working stiff and now as a job hunter eager to join the corporate rat race are sharply observed and, perhaps more surprising, funny. Though her sympathies are clearly with those she sees as downtrodden in one way or another, Ehrenreich does not suffer fools, let alone charlatans, gladly at any level of the socioeconomic ladder. Nor does she spare herself: One night, after a long shift at Wal-Mart, she returns to the kitchenless room she is renting by the week with her dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and turns on the television to an episode of Survivor. “Who are these nutcases who would volunteer for an artificially daunting situation in order to entertain millions of strangers with their half-assed efforts to survive?” she writes, in Nickel and Dimed. “Then I remember where I am and why I am here.”

I talked with Ehrenreich about her adventures among the marginally employed and the white-collar unemployed. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.

CommonWealth: In Nickel and Dimed, you set out with the goal of trying to make ends meet, matching income to expenses one month at a time as you lived and worked in three different settings: waiting tables in Florida, cleaning houses in Maine, and tending clothing racks at Wal-Mart in Minnesota. Now, you said it was no surprise to you that you found that hard to do; that was your point in trying to do it. What did surprise you about what made it tough?

Ehrenreich: Well, I began to realize that it’s actually more expensive to be poor, in some ways, than to be affluent. Little things, like if you have housing that doesn’t have an adequate kitchen, food is going to be more expensive. I had this vision of myself cooking up big lentil stews and freezing them, thawing one each night. I’m a good cook in that kind of basic fashion. But I didn’t have a pot. In some situations I didn’t even have a fridge or a microwave. Then you’re stuck with fast food and convenience store food, which, quite apart from its appealingness as food, is expensive.

CommonWealth: In some locations, the only affordable housing you could find was in motels.

Ehrenreich: Yeah, now that’s another high cost for the poor, because to get into a regular apartment you need the first month’s rent and a security deposit, at least, which is an amount of capital—$1,000 or more —a lot of people can’t scrape together. So, to get a roof over your head quickly you go into a motel and that’s ridiculous, $40 a night or something. And you’re talking about very cheap motels, although some of the creepy residential motels are not even cheap. I was taken aback by these kinds of additional costs.

CommonWealth: In Minnesota, you ran into a severe housing crunch but also a dislocation between where you could find housing that you could afford and where you would find the jobs you were trying to work. You found it was a trade-off: You could live here and get a job there but then have to spend so much, in time and money, getting back and forth to work.

‘It’s more expensive to be poor, in some
ways, than to be affluent.’
Ehrenreich: Right. I hadn’t realized, for one thing, that the Twin Cities is a pretty big urban area, and also that the really cheap housing there is still in the inner city—tenements and so forth—but the jobs tend to be on the periphery, because it’s no longer an industrial city, or it’s less and less so. The jobs are in the big-box stores in the suburbs. So that’s tricky. This was also a problem for me in the Florida Keys. The one affordable, decent place I ever stayed in was $500 a month. It was a little cottage in the back of some guy’s house, but it was pretty far up the Keys. The jobs are in Key West and the commute was 45 minutes each way. Now, gas prices were a lot lower then, but still I was astonished at how much I was paying just to commute. So I got out of that place and went to the trailer park that’s near a lot of big hotels, but that was expensive. What was it, $625 a month without utilities for a half-size trailer?

CommonWealth: Now, Bait and Switch, your next project, was an attempt to move up the socioeconomic ladder to the middle class. What was it about white-collar unemployment and what you came to call “anxious employment” that made you want to explore it?

Ehrenreich: Well there is a connection here to Nickel and Dimed. Since writing Nickel and Dimed I’ve gotten thousands of letters from people experiencing hard times. A lot of them are people who have been chronically poor, but I was struck by how many of these letters were coming from people who were college educated, maybe who had a master’s degree, who had once held a pretty decent white-collar, middle-class job but were now bounced right down to the Nickel and Dimed level. They’d lost their job in some kind of reorganization or layoff and never climbed back in. So, I said I haven’t finished with this subject of poverty until I know more about that. What’s going on there? And the first thought was, well, here’s a project: Go out and find a job myself. How hard can it be?

CommonWealth: You found out it was pretty hard, didn’t you?

Ehrenreich: Yeah, and that still somewhat hurts my feelings. Hey, I’m presentable, believe me. Not right this minute, but I am presentable. I am articulate, I’m pretty smart, and I have great communication skills—leadership skills, which are something they seem to value in the corporate world. I thought I would have made an excellent communications director or PR [public relations] person, which is what my fake résumé presented me as. My cover letters were well written. I have no trouble talking to strangers. Hey, would you hire me?

CommonWealth: In a minute, Barbara.

Ehrenreich: Okay. Because you start thinking, what’s the matter with me?

CommonWealth: One thing you discovered in starting out in your job hunt—you figured it would take four to six months to land a job—is that the white-collar job search is a highly ritualized activity. Blue-collar folks looking for work have to answer help-wanted ads, they pound the pavement, fill out job applications, maybe pee in a cup for a drug test, but that’s about it. As a white-collar job seeker, you had to learn how to put together the perfect résumé, the perfect dress-for-success outfit and makeup, and were told again and again to exude the right attitude. What did you learn from your various makeovers?

Ehrenreich: I should first say something about the white-collar/blue-collar difference. You know, white-collar unemployed people quite often have some assets when a job loss occurs. They might have gotten a severance package, they certainly will get unemployment insurance, and maybe they have savings. So they are a potential market for, the expression seems to be, the “transition industry” that has sprung up since the mid-’90s to help them find a new job—and, of course, to get hold of some of those assets they have. You fall into the clutches, so to speak. My stance was: I have to get any kind of help I can get. I am not proud. I will get a career coach, I will work on this résumé until it’s perfect in her judgment, and so on. So I entered into that world, which so many of the white-collar unemployed enter into. And what I found was I felt a little odd, more odd doing this than I did in doing Nickel and Dimed. To do Nickel and Dimed I was basically offering to sell my muscles and my brain to whoever wanted them to get a job done. No acting involved, right? You either do the job or you don’t. Now I was pretending to be something I’ve not been—that is, a PR person instead of a journalist and writer. So there was that awkward feeling, certainly at the beginning, but what I quickly learned from my various coaches and networking groups and everything is that this is all about acting. I wasn’t the only actor around. Every job seeker was being encouraged to perform, in a sense, in the way they present themselves, in exuding a constantly upbeat, self-confident, perky manner, and so on. And then I thought, well, I guess I’m not the only fake here. This is all about fakery.

CommonWealth: You found you could fit right in, huh?

Ehrenreich: Yeah.

CommonWealth: As you soon discover, the magic word in a white-collar job search is networking.

Ehrenreich: Yes.

CommonWealth: But that, you found out, wasn’t as easy as it sounded, especially for you, since you had no real network to tap into in the field that you were presenting yourself in. But even at best, isn’t there something creepy about the emphasis on networking for white-collar jobs? What does it mean about the “career open to merit” concept of fairness that dates back to Napoleon? Is networking just a euphemism for the old saying, “It’s not what you know but who you know?”

Ehrenreich: I think so. Yeah, you’re being told all the time that the way you ultimately get a job is by meeting somebody, impressing somebody, or through someone—your brother-in-law’s friend or someone you meet at church or something. That doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what your skills are and your experiences. It is who you know. I mean, everybody’s perfectly frank about that. In fact, some of the career-coaching outfits and whole firms that help in these transitions—supposedly help, I should say—one of the things they’re selling is contacts. You give us $6,000 and you can have a little desk, and so on, in our offices, and we’re going to dole out contacts to you. But the other thing that’s creepy about networking, and this is more philosophical on my part, is that it implies such an instrumental approach to other human beings. You’re not meeting people because you’re interested in them. Ordinarily you go to, say, a cocktail party or a kids’ sports event, you’re mingling with people and chatting and you have something in common, and they’re funny or fun to be with or they’re not. Now you’re just looking over everybody’s shoulder to see what advantage you can gain from that interaction. And I found that difficult—creepy.

Getting a white-collar job
‘is all about fakery.’

CommonWealth: The one job offer you got, if you could call it that, was selling insurance for AFLAC—on your own, no office to work out of, no health insurance or other benefits, and the only income whatever you could drum up in commissions.

Ehrenreich: No salary, in other words. That’s why I rejected that as a job.

CommonWealth: Not exactly a job. But the blurring of boundaries between employment and self-employment is something we looked at actually in a recent issue of CommonWealth (“Lone Rangers,” CW, Summer ’05). In some ways, the rise of independent contracting and consulting seems like a positive option for white-collar workers, a function of a technologically connected society that allows people working in the comfort of their home offices to be just as much team players as those in the office cubicle. It gives a level of freedom and self-direction to a certain class of worker who values and can capitalize on life as an independent contractor. For many it’s, at best, a way to tide oneself over between real jobs and, at worst, a substitute for a real job with real benefits and real security. But given the increasing insecurity that comes with a volatile global economy, isn’t this the wave of the future?

Ehrenreich: In my real life, I’ve been an independent almost all my adult life. I’m a freelance writer. And I value, I treasure, that independence. In fact, when you are offered one of these commission-only sales jobs—and I was not only offered AFLAC, I was also offered Mary Kay [cosmetics]—one of the things they say to you is, look at the independence you can have. You can make your own hours. The AFLAC guy even said, “You don’t have be a clone,” even though he himself was wearing a duck tie, the AFLAC duck, and there were duck replicas all over the office. He said, “You don’t have to be a clone because you’re going to work on your own, sink or swim.” They are offering a kind of independence, but the price of that is no security. Not that I think jobholders have much more security these days, but when you’re selling health insurance and you have no health insurance, when you’re getting no payment except what you can run out and hustle, to me that’s a pretty scary tradeoff. Now, maybe not so in my own case as a writer, because I’ve been doing this for so long. I know how to do it and earn a living. But I thought that sounded pretty terrifying to try to do that with direct selling.

CommonWealth: Absolutely. Well, the bottom line was you never did get offered a real job, despite your months of search, despite your skills and moxie and a good 200 applications submitted for posted or advertised jobs. You might not have been the perfect test case for employability—a middle-aged woman, in transition, as you say—but neither were you in an appreciably different position than many women attempting a return to the workplace after raising a family. What conclusions do you draw from your failure to land a job in nearly a year of looking?

Ehrenreich: Well, that it’s not so easy. One thing I quickly learned was you cannot have a résumé that has gaps in it that you intend to explain by way of family responsibilities. I thought, okay, I’m a woman, maybe I’ve recently been divorced—this is how I imagined myself. Recently divorced, I was dabbling in doing some event planning and PR and things, but now I’ve really got to get down to it. I can explain this: “I was raising children.” Oh, no. Twice in group situations I brought this up. What if you have a gap in your résumé, which of course is deadly, if you can explain that by the fact that you were a homemaker? One coach said, “Well, you’re going to have to think of a pretty story for that.” A good story? I thought, hey, isn’t this a common story? One of the things I want to shout from the rooftops to those young professional women that we read about who are dropping out of their careers for four or five years while the kids are little: “Don’t expect to get back in.” Certainly don’t expect to get back in at the level you were at. And that’s pretty scary. Of course, this does affect women much more than men, because they are more likely to be the caretakers.

CommonWealth: The other thing you discovered after all those months and all those jobs applied for and getting nary a nibble, was that it stung, and far more than you were really prepared for.

Ehrenreich: Yeah. At the beginning I had a mixture of cockiness and will and great insecurity. The cockiness came from the fact that I have been successful in a career. I know how to do the things I was purporting to do in my fake résumé. And I’ve generally been successful at things I set out to do. But I had to, after 10 months, conclude that, no, in fact, take away my identity, my Barbara Ehrenreich identity, and I’m pretty invisible. I’m nothing. You couldn’t really tell how middle-aged I was from my résumé, I should say. People often ask me about age discrimination, which certainly is rife in the corporate world. So you’re told right away that your résumé can give no hint of your age. I thought you had to put down the date of your college graduation. No, no, no. In fact, you can have no experience listed that goes back more than 10 years, 15 years max. So looking at my résumé, I could have been in my early 40s. So you can’t blame it all on that.

CommonWealth: Now, I know your hope in this project was to go through the process of a job search, but also to get in that job and do it. In Bait and Switch, you write that you did get from the search process itself and from the people that you met along the way a sense of what corporate culture would have been like. But what do you think you missed by not getting to do that part of the project?

Ehrenreich: Well, one of the big things I missed was not getting to know people, white-collar corporate people, under more auspicious circumstances. I was meeting people who had either been laid off or were fearful of being laid off, or who just couldn’t take it anymore, were stressed beyond belief by their job. I was seeing the real downside. I’m disappointed that I was not hired. They were always talking about teamwork and teams, and that’s why you’re supposed to be so upbeat and positive and friendly all the time. I wanted to be on one of these teams—even though the teams also seem to be a little fragile, since you can always be ejected from your team and right out the door with half an hour to get your stuff together and clean your desk.

Meet the Author

CommonWealth: What you did learn from your time among the white-collar unemployed, and the anxiously employed, was that there’s a lot more insecurity in a socioeconomic stratum that you once thought of as comfortable. It seems we all need to anticipate corporate restructuring, as in downsizing and outsourcing, now. We have to count on working for numerous employers in careers that are more likely to zigzag than go directly up any one corporate ladder. Is that something that we all ought to get used to?

‘Now, instead of being assets, people are seen increasingly as liabilities.’

Ehrenreich: Yeah, and I don’t think there’s really sufficient preparation. There has been a major change in corporate culture, corporate governance, starting in the late ’80s or somewhere, away from a culture that rested on mutual loyalty between, certainly, the white-collar folks and the top level—the CEO, the C-suite people. That’s gone. Let me put it this way. The very word corporate implies people being bound together in someway by a common project. It comes from the [Latin] word for body, as in corporeal—many people forming one body. That’s gone. The corporation today seems to be more of a free-floating money-making machine, rather than a group—whether it’s a hundred or hundreds of thousands of people around the world—who are aimed at doing one thing and feel this common bond. Now, instead of being assets, people are seen increasingly as liabilities. This happened first with the blue-collar people, of course, in the ’80s, with the movement of manufacturing to other parts of the world. Then, in the ’90s, it was the white-collar people, too. And this is very strange. You would think that a good person would be someone to treasure and nurture. Now, well, you look at it from a certain part of the corporation, somewhere in the financial offices, and you think, hey, this person is costing a hundred thousand dollars a year, if you throw in health benefits. We could save that money. So, it’s an entirely different world, and I don’t think people are prepared. Business is still the most popular major in college, and a lot of those students are thinking about joining the corporate world. But they’re not prepared for the fact that it’s not going to be one straightforward climb up in a corporation as it might have been in the ’60s.