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'Right-sizing' provides outrage for Ehrenreich's laser gaze

Barbara Ehrenreich specializes in turning over the rocks of American culture and documenting what crawls out.

Her landmark reporting on the troubles of working-class Americans -- waitresses, maids, fast-food workers -- made required reading of her 2001 book, "Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America."

Now she turns her laser-like attention, along with her deep empathy and scathing wit, to the travails of quite another demographic group: unemployed white-collar workers.

Corporate downsizing (or, as it is sometimes appallingly phrased, "right-sizing") has spilled hordes of white-collar workers onto the street and into America's unemployment lines.

They may be college-educated, they may know how to make a Power Point presentation, they may know how to fashion a Windsor knot in their Bill Blass tie. But these folks are out of a job -- and, for many, the prospects are slim.

Maybe their jobs have been outsourced to India. Or maybe the relentless drive for profits has simply made a "leaner and meaner" workforce the obvious answer in their company.

Only rarely, she writes, is it the fault of these corporate workers or their life choices. On the contrary: "They were the losers . . . in a classic game of bait and switch."

"Distressed white-collar people," Ehrenreich writes, "are the ones who 'did everything right.' They earned higher degrees, often setting aside their youthful passion for philosophy or music to suffer through dull practical majors like management or finance."

In some cases, their own initial success did them in: "They had risen far enough in the company for their salaries to look like a tempting cost cut."

And so they are set adrift. In entering their world -- and a sorry one it turns out to be -- Ehrenreich employs the same technique as in "Nickle and Dimed." She goes undercover. She begins to live their lives, and in doing so to feel their significant pain.

In "Bait and Switch," the author doesn't scrub toilets as she did in her last incarnation. She decides to seek a position in corporate public relations. Using her maiden name, and (for the most part) her real credentials, she polishes her resume, hires a coach, gets an image makeover, takes a battery of personality tests and hears all sorts of advice about the importance of a winning attitude and passion for one's work.

She's quick to mock the "magical thinking" she hears on this subject from all the experts, including her own expensive career coach.

"I have already learned from Kimberly the value of being 'proactive' and 'a self-starter,' " she writes. The sarcasm, an Ehrenreich specialty, just about burns a hole in the page.

She even signs up for a job-seekers' "boot camp."

But like too many in her cohort, she fails. Despite her immersion in the demeaning world of "networking" and career advice from professionals, she never manages to land that PR gig. Over and over again, she is rejected by potential employers.

That's no great harm to Ehrenreich, whose last book sold a million copies, and who is as close as a social critic gets to being a household name. She'll be all right.

But for the rest of the downsized and rightsized? It's not very pretty.

Anyone who works in the increasingly chilly corporate environment will read Ehrenreich's book with a sense of dread. This could happen to anyone. No resume is bullet-proof enough; and no list of contacts can provide enough armor against these slings and arrows.

"Bait and Switch" is likely to scare the power suit right off your back. There, but for the grace of Xerox or General Motors or AT&T, go we.

Bait and Switch

The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

By Barbara Ehrenreich

Metropolitan

237 pages, $24

Margaret Sullivan is the editor of The News.

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