Human Rights

Working Hard or Hardly Working

In this exclusive interview, Barbara Ehrenreich talks about the thin line between the middle class and the working poor and why she wants to slap the next person who insists on the power of positive thinking.
Barbara Ehrenreich is one of those rare writers who is not only smart and unapologetically progressive, but really funny. That's quite a feat considering the deadly serious subjects she takes on, including the middle class, war, marriage, cancer, and corporations.

Like Alexis de Tocqueville, Ehrenreich seems most interested in the characters, mythologies and systems that make the United States what it is. In hundreds of articles and a dozen books, she's focused on how this country works, who it works for, and who is left behind.

In the bestseller Nickel and Dimed, she worked at a variety of low-wage jobs with the idea of answering the question of how people in the working poor survive and make ends meet. Her latest book, Bait and Switch, was inspired by a reader who asked, "What about those of us in the middle class who do everything we're supposed to; what about those of us go to college, work hard, get a job, and then find ourselves unemployed and unable to pay the bills?"

Ehrenreich spoke with AlterNet about class, prevailing American mythologies, and why she's through with going under cover.

Back in the spring, NPR did a show about a recent study showing that class mobility in the United States is basically nonexistent. The single most indicative factor of a person's income is that person's parents' income. Lower classes in Canada, Britain, Germany and France have a far easier time moving their way up the social ladder than their American counterparts. Yet, a New York Times study found that 80 percent of Americans believe it's still possible to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Did your experience in Bait and Switch and Nickel and Dimed give you any sense of why that belief still persists?

EHRENREICH: There is a tremendous American theme about positive thinking. We have a hard time dealing with truly bad news and discouraging information. Throughout my experience trying to get a white-collar job, I was encouraged to think positively. You are supposed to see your job loss as some great break, your chance to move on to something bigger and better. The reality is that 70 percent of people who lose their jobs and do get rehired, are rehired at a lower pay. But to criticize the system, or to be negative is considered "un-American."

It was a similar attitude that drove me crazy when I was dealing with breast cancer. Despite study after study showing there was no correlation, everyone kept telling me that my outcome would be better if I had a better attitude.

What's so offensive about that insistence, whether in relation to illness or job loss, is the implication that the victim is at fault. If you don't get better or you don't find a better job, then there must be something wrong with your attitude. The government (or the doctor, or the employer) doesn't have to take responsibility for providing for you, because if you aren't doing well, it's your fault. And of course it's an outlook that's enormously satisfying for those on top, because it implies they deserve to be there because of their winning attitudes.

It makes sense that people holding power would believe this, but why do you think others believe it, despite their own experience?

The belief in a positive attitude is so ingrained in American thinking. You can see it in the late 19th century, with the advent of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science. In the '50s, it was called the Power of Positive Thinking. In the '70s, it was called EST.

Now it's in all the business books I've read. It's crammed down people's throats in books like Who Moved My Cheese.

One job-seeker I met, told me he'd "gotten over" all the negative feelings he had from his firing. He'd absorbed all these feelings in the hopes that this would get him a better job!

What happens to that anger?

I don't know where it goes. Part of pop psychology is that you should acknowledge your feelings, but there's no place for them in the workplace.

In The Mangaged Heart, Arlie Hochschild wrote about the bland mask that workers are required to wear. Eventually, you get used to the affect and people lose the capacity to recognize their own emotions.

Another American myth that falls apart in Bait and Switch is the idea that Americans are so free-spirited, independent and rebellious. You write about how people who are laid off are encouraged to pretend to be at work; to dress for work, even to have a friend or a partner act as a boss.

Yes, you're supposed to structure your life as if you're working. Even though this could be your chance to do something creative and fun. To seize hold of the fact that you have time to do something different.

I finally realized why people seemed so passive; people feel their survival is at stake. If you stood up at one of the "support meetings" for the white-collar unemployed and said, "This is nonsense," you would be shunned. People might withhold a contact for you that might mean the difference between having a job or not.

And yet the people in Nickel and Dimed, who were closer to real poverty than the people in Bait and Switch, seemed to have more rebelliousness, more defiance.

That was my experience. It's of course not necessarily statistically true, just in the settings I was in. But I did find that the blue-collar workers were more willing to express defiance, even if only in small ways: making faces at the boss behind her back or making sarcastic remarks. In blue-collar work, there is a larger gap between the worker and the manager. You aren't required to be as socialized, just to obey.

In blue-collar jobs, they mostly just want to know if you are taking drugs or are a convicted felon. But in the white-collar world, there's much more probing of your personality and they want one specific personality: someone cheerful, upbeat and very social. You are required to be a team player.

And yet you, and reviewers, seem to have more sympathy for the blue-collar workers who aren't working so hard to get along with everyone.

In general, I think it's easier for liberal affluent people to be concerned about those who are chronically poor. Harder to have compassion for the IT person down the street who may be heading to the working poor. And by and large, I found the white-collar people more withdrawn and depressed. Even if they had a job, they were terrified of being laid off. The white-collar person might be only six months away from being in a blue-collar job, if they have a job at all. But part of being in the middle-class is absorbing certain prejudices; white-collar workers may believe they are smarter and more hard-working than those in blue-collar jobs and so this shouldn't happen to them.

Since I was able to get blue-collar jobs, I had more well-rounded experiences of the people I worked with. I tried for over six months to get a white-collar job and couldn't get one. I didn't have the right contacts, the right look or the right attitude. I think if I'd been able to land a white-collar job I may have had more rounded experiences of the people I was working with and perhaps their defiance would come out in subtle ways as well.

You seem surprised in the book by the white-collar emphasis on personality and networking. You mention a woman who is brought in for a sit-down with the boss after she mentions in a work-retreat questionnaire that "irony" is her favorite form of humor. How do you think this culture of positive personality effects the work that is actually being done in white-collar jobs?

I'm not sure this emphasis is even best for the corporate world. Before going deeper into white-collar job searching, I would have assumed the emphasis would be on the bottom line. It seems that corporations would want good problem-solvers, even if they were eccentric and dressed funny.

The computer technology boom did change this somewhat. While it boomed, there was the sense that it didn't matter how you dressed and how quirky your personality was, as long as you were smart. While Silicon Valley boomed, I think this did have some effect on corporate culture. And at Microsoft, Google and Amazon, and places like that I've seen that it still is that way. But when the technology market settled down, general corporate culture withdrew back into conformity. One woman I met during the research for this book was told at an interview, "We're not looking for a 'smart' person right now."

In Thomas Friedman's The Earth is Flat he raises the alarm that Americans are falling behind in science, technology, and business because of globalization. But I think there's a larger problem with American productivity: corporations have gotten flabby. We have a flat business culture where people are not challenged to think independently.

My experience researching Nickel and Dimed made me angrier, but I was also unsurprised by what I found. I had worked some of those jobs before. Bait and Switch was more astounding. I was surprised by how non-rational that work world was and the mystical belief in positive-thinking. I had no idea, for example, how much evangelical Christianity has penetrated this world.

Instead of thinking about how powerful these companies are, which is what I expected, I came out wondering how they get anything done!

You end Bait and Switch with some ideas for organizing unemployed white-collar workers. Has there been any response to that?

I put out some ideas, such as national health care and increased unemployment benefits. But one thing that struck me doing the research for the book was that there was no way for unemployed or underemployed people to come together that wasn't an evangelical recruiting session or a money scam.

As I go around talking to people on this book tour, I've been helping set up networks of local underemployed and unemployed white-collar workers. People have really been excited about the simple thing of being able to sit around and share stories with other people. People feel like their job loss is their fault and just having conversations with others is breaking through the isolation and getting them to think about change. White-collar organizing has been pretty limited to health professionals, teachers, some professors. It would be great if these meetings could change that.

What's next? Are you thinking of masquerading in the upper class?

You know, I wanted to, but doing the initial research, I came to the sad conclusion that it would take a whole lot of plastic surgery for me to be able to pull it off. The rich just don't look like the rest of us -- all the constant facials and pampering. Their skin is so tight it shines. I don't think I'll be going through that transformation any time soon.

So instead, I'm looking forward to getting back to work on a history book that interests me, a follow-up to Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War. History doesn't necessarily sell well, but I love it and it's how I understand the world.
Rachel Neumann is Rights & Liberties Editor at AlterNet.
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