Barbara Ehrenreich in this book explores the scary world of white collar unemployment and the “transition industry.” That is a euphemism for the business of helping white collar job seekers. It’s a world of job coaches, head hunters, job seminars, job seeker boot camps, job fairs, and Christian support groups for job seekers (some taking the opportunity to proselytize). She describes passing encounters with sham job offers that advertise “being your own boss” or “get rich quick.” At one point she is offered a job where she is to work on a commission basis in sales for a large insurance company for no salary, no office space, and no benefits (and she is to provide her own computer and pay for books and training). She also views with a jaundiced eye some of the tools used by the “network and dream big” motivational gurus. In particular she takes a couple swipes at their use of personality tests under the pretense of helping to find the right job.
This book is about people who did everything right and find that the American dream didn’t work for them. They went to college, didn’t get pregnant at a young age, and obtained the degrees and credentials that are supposed to provide a ticket to the middle class. Many of them at one time were progressing successfully in their careers when they were “downsized” (i.e. laid off). Ironically, the highly successful were sometimes the first to be let go because of their higher wages. Then they found that finding another job difficult, and sometimes impossible. Thus many are now joining the flow of the downwardly mobile. This book was written in 2005 prior to the latest world-wide economic downturn. Conditions described in this book can only have gotten worse since then. Many in this book were victims of the dot-com bubble (i.e. many I.T. types). Presumably now many would be victims of the real estate and finance collapse. Come to think of it, there are probably quite a few unemployed journalists too.
The last chapter of the book zeros in on the nature of the problem as a whole. Everybody in the “transition industry” encourages positive thinking and being an enthusiastic participant in the expectations of corporate culture. Then in return, corporate culture gives zero loyalty to its workers. Many white collar workers in today’s environment are simply stripped of their dignity.“...white-collar corporate workers lack....dignity. The white-collar corporate employee...must sell--not just his skill and hard work--but himself. ... His is a world of intrigue and ill-defined expectations, of manipulation and mind games, where self presentation--as in “personality” and “attitude”--regularly outweighs performance.”
The role of unions has been to protect workers. But unions are losing influence, and generally don’t represent white collar professions. Some professions are protected by barriers that limit the number who may enter their profession (e.g. State licensing of medical doctors, nurses, accountants, engineers, teachers and lawyers). These barriers provide some protection from lesser trained completion. However, in the case of management, human relations, marketing, and PR, anyone with a college degree can present themselves as a potential practitioner. And with this openness comes a huge vulnerability for the veterans in the field.
The book’s cynical appraisal of the “transition industry” that feeds off the plight of the white collar unemployed fits well with my own negative views on the subject. It’s obvious that job seekers need assistance, help and encouragement. Being charged fees for services of questionable value is the last thing needed. The book acknowledges that many job fairs, which are aimed primarily at blue collar employment, are usually provided at no cost.
Barbara Ehrenreich is a good writer and is able to make this discouraging commentary of American life an interesting, and at times humorous, reading experience. I recommend this review of the book by Trevor