Q: You are an author and journalist who has written quite a bit about poverty. What made you turn your attention to the white-collar worker for Bait and Switch?
A: Since writing Nickel and Dimed, I’ve gotten hundreds of letters from people in poverty. A lot of the people I’ve been hearing from don’t fit the profile of the “unskilled,” under-educated, low-wage person. They’re college-educated and, in most cases, were doing well until they lost their jobs, usually due to downsizing or outsourcing. I think I shared the common belief that if you’re college-educated, hard working and not a crack addict, you’re pretty much set for life. So hearing from former white-collar, middle class people who are facing destitution made me curious -- and concerned. I decided to investigate.
Q: Unemployment is relatively low right now, at about 5%, so is there really a problem for white-collar people?
A: The unemployment figures don’t include people who have given up on finding a job, and according to a new study from the Federal Reserve Bank in Boston, there could be as many as 5 million people in that situation. The other thing the official unemployment rate doesn’t take account of is all the people who are working at jobs that are inappropriate to their education and experience -- like the laid-off IT guy who finds a job at Circuit City for $8 an hour. He counts as “employed.” The same goes for the person who gets re-hired on a short-term contract basis, usually with no benefits.
Q: What happens to laid-off white-collar people when they can’t find a job after 6 months or a year?
A: First they do everything possible to reduce their living expenses -- auction off possessions on e-Bay, for example, move to a smaller house or apartment, give up on luxuries like cable TV and meals out. Unemployment benefits run out after 6 months and at that point things get really scary. Some people move back in with their parents. Many take temp jobs or “survival jobs” -- like the Circuit City case -- hoping that something better will come along. Unfortunately, it’s hard to be an effective job hunter when you’re working full-time, which is why many people get stuck permanently in their low-wage “survival jobs.”
Q: Are there any types of support systems for these people? If so, what are they?
A: Yes, there’s an entire industry out there waiting to help -- or, I would say, exploit -- unemployed white collar people, the so-called transition industry. You can find networking events for the unemployed in almost every city. You can pay to attend a “boot camp” for job seekers. Or you can hire one of America’s 10,000 “career coaches.” For about $200 an hour, a coach will test your personality, help polish your résumé, and try to pump up your self-confidence. I did all these things and ended up spending about $6,000 -- but none of it helped me find a job.
Q: What do you have against personality testing? Shouldn’t coaches -- and companies -- try to slot people into jobs compatible with their personalities?
A: The most common tests -- like the Meyers-Briggs and Enneagram tests -- are completely useless, and, in fact, have been thoroughly debunked. I couldn’t figure out how to answer the questions anyway. For example, the Meyers-Briggs test asks: ‘When you go somewhere for the day, would you (A) rather plan what you will do and when, or (B) “just go”?’ Obviously, the answer is somewhat different for a court appearance than for a trip to the mall.
The even more ridiculous Enneagram test asked whether I’m “special,” “wow,” or “moving against.” What can that possibly mean?
Then there’s the deeper issue of what “personality” has to do with job performance. Suppose I’m an experienced event planner but the test shows I’m better suited to be an embalmer -- what am I supposed to do? As it turns out, according to the Enneagram test, I am unsuited to be a writer.
Q: You object to the advice that job seekers should try to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude. But isn’t it psychologically healthy to be upbeat? And isn’t it more likely to help you land a job?
A: Of course you can’t act sullen and surly in a job interview. But job seekers are advised to root out all traces of “negative thinking,” and it can’t be healthy to deny the anger and depression you experienced when you were fired or laid off. In fact, the anger, at least, is healthy -- and could be channeled into something worthwhile, like advocating for health insurance and other social supports for the unemployed.
Q: To be profitable, corporations need the flexibility to lay off or outsource people as needed. Corporate leaders would argue that any attempts to restrict this flexibility will ultimately hurt the economy for all of us. So what’s the solution?
A: Right now, the economy is in no danger of being hurt by a lack of corporate “flexibility.” But it is being hurt by unemployment and underemployment. People without incomes, or who have drastically reduced incomes, don’t spend much. At the same time, their talents and experience are going to waste. Corporations need to become more accountable to both their workers and their consumers; and the government needs to provide more support for the people who do get laid off.
Q: Several of the networking events you attended turned out to be very religious in orientation and featured a lot of proselytizing. What’s wrong with bringing religion into the business world?
A: I’m all for bringing more ethics and social responsibility into the business world, but that’s not the same as religion. One problem with bringing religion into business is that we’re not all the same religion, or even any religion, and there’s only one religion you are likely to encounter in business settings these days -- evangelical Protestantism. The Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and atheists are bound to feel excluded -- as I did.
The other problem is the effect of business on religion itself. Religion is about transcendent issues and an ultimately unknowable God. So I was offended by the trivialized versions of Christianity I encountered in my job search, in which you are urged, for example, to “network with the Lord.”
Q: You have said that researching Nickel and Dimed and working demanding blue-collar jobs was more enjoyable for you than the research you did for this book. Why?
A: For one thing, I enjoyed the camaraderie of my co-workers in the jobs I took while working on Nickel and Dimed. A lot of them were funny, bright, and very generous. In contrast, my fellow job seekers in this project often seemed depressed, withdrawn, and guarded.
But I also think there’s something more straightforward about blue-collar work. The job gets done right or it doesn’t -- you scrub the floors, serve the food, stock the shelves, and you get paid for it. There’s not all this nonsense about being “likeable” and having the prescribed personality. In other words, the blue-collar world is a lot less psychologically manipulative.
Q: You’re a fairly accomplished person -- you’ve written about a dozen books as well as opinion pieces for Time and The New York Times. What did it feel like to be rejected over and over when you were searching for a job?
A: It was humbling and sobering to realize that even with the excellent résumé I created for myself -- plus writing skills that I thought would shine through in my cover letters -- nobody seemed to want me. If I really needed a job, and was doing this in real life, it would have been devastating.
Q: You did undercover work both for this book and for Nickel and Dimed. What’s it like to go undercover? Does it take acting skills?
A: Certainly not in my Nickel and Dimed work. How do you “act” like a waitress, for example? The food gets to the table or not. But being a white-collar job seeker is all about acting. And not just for those job seekers who happen to be undercover journalists. Acting like someone you aren’t, expressing emotions you don’t feel -- these are things you have to do get the job, and probably to keep it once you have it.
Q: At this point, business is the most popular undergraduate major in American colleges and the MBA is the most popular graduate degree. What future do you see for today’s business students in the corporate world?
A: I think they’re being sold a bill of goods. What leads students to go into business -- as supposed to, say, poetry or history -- is the promise of economic security, even wealth. What they’re not told is that life in the corporate world has become a crap shoot: You can count on being laid off or otherwise churned out over and over, until you get too old -- say about 45 -- to be rehired.
Q: What’s your advice for the job seeker?
A: I’m not the best person to ask because I was a failure as a job seeker, but I would advise that, contrary to what the coaches and books tell you, job searching can’t fill up 8 or more hours a day. I think there’s a lot of made-up work going on, and that job seekers ought to make the most of the free time they have: read some books, go to movies, look up old friends, volunteer, and try to figure out what you really enjoy doing and whether there’s a way to support yourself doing it. Because there’s a very real chance you’ll never land the kind of job you’re looking for anyway.