Not quite 'Nickled and Dimed'

News & Politics

I love Barbara Ehrenreich as much as the next progressive groupie -- and no, I haven't read her latest book, "Bait and Switch." But my friend and fellow journalist E. J. Graff has and she is not impressed with the white-collar version of "Nickled and Dimed." Here's an excerpt of her critique in the Boston Globe:

Many of her advisers are psychobabble-laden clowns about whom she is funny and snarky. But she clearly despises them, to an unnecessary degree. Consider her comments on her resume coach, a tiresomely perky woman who is herself trying to land a job: ''She represents something about the corporate world that repels me, some deep coldness masked as relentless cheerfulness. [She] seems to have perfected the requisite phoniness, and even as I dislike her, my whole aim is to be welcomed into the same corporate culture that she seems to have mastered." But obviously she hasn't mastered it; she's looking for a job herself.
While Ehrenreich thinks this coach represents something, she's merely guessing about something generic. Which corporation? Doing what? Based where? She seems not to understand that there's as much variation among American corporate cultures and attitudes as there is among American cities. Google, Fidelity, American Airlines, Procter & Gamble, Merck, Wachovia: each of these has its own quite different cultural climate. Yes, generalizations could be made -- but not by guessing. ...
In her conclusion Ehrenreich acknowledges some of these limitations, but she doesn't seem to understand how much they undermine her book's verisimilitude. Which is not to say that her comments are entirely off. She's right about the semi-illiterate business language that passes as insight, about the annoyance of endless PowerPoint presentations in which the presenter reads the slides aloud. She's right about the painful need, at times, for the corporate denizen to divide her ethical and emotional self from her work self, or the need to feign a ''genuine" personality that conforms to the culture. But Ehrenreich extracts these insights secondhand, from the worst kind of inspirational seminars and business-advice books, rather than showing the actual Kafkaesque details of corporate and ex-corporate life. [LINK]
My first reaction on reading E. J.'s review was that it reminded me of a certain kind of progressive snob who despises any one working at a corporate job -- which just happens to be the vast majority of middle class Americans -- viewing them as sell-outs or mindless drones. Worse, it ignores the kind of commitment it takes to plug away for years at a dull, mind-numbing middle management job to pay the bills and put your kids through school.

I don't think E.J. is accusing Ehrenreich of being such a snob, but rather of taking the wrong approach to a complex and unfamiliar subject.

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