The American Dream is one of success, home ownership, college education for one’s children, and have a secure job to provide these and other goals. – Leonard Boswell
I’ve been reading Bait and switch: The (futile) pursuit of the American dream by Barbara Ehrenreich and am not sure what to make of it.
It was published in 2005 and is a reporter’s attempt to explore the world of white collar economic hardship.
It’s easy to blame people for getting into difficulties for making bad choices – not finishing school, getting pregnant young, doing petty crime.
In fact, some people really should have chosen their parents more carefully…
But what of the people who did what they should have done – worked hard, paid for University, went out there and got good jobs – and then lost them through downsizing, rightsizing, outsourcing, restructuring or whatever else is the way you cut costs in an organisation?
And for those who do have jobs – what kind of jobs are they?
Are they any different from sweat shops where you work all the time, at work or at home or on the move – working to please your boss all the time?
If we jump to the end of the book Ehrenreich suggests that there is something weird and wrong about corporate life – about the life of white collar professionals.
First, they aren’t really professionals at all.
They don’t have a requirement to have qualifications – one that’s enforced by law.
They aren’t licensed and there isn’t a body of knowledge they are required to know.
Real professionals figured this out some time back and created these things – these barriers that kept them safe.
Professionals like doctors, lawyers and accountants.
Next, how intelligent do these professionals need to be?
Well, if you look at intelligence as being related to some kind of academic standard – with people encouraged to think independently, look clearly at the facts, where dissent is tolerated, perhaps even encouraged, and there is comfort in engaging with complexity rather than reducing everything to a simple maxim – there isn’t much of that around.
Instead, there is lots of “magical thinking”, views and opinions and general hot air.
Third, how equal are workplaces these days?
No, really, if you’re too old, a woman or non-male gender, if you’re the wrong colour, speak funny, don’t have the right education – how likely is it that you’ll really be treated fairly?
Well, we’ll never really know because this isn’t the kind of thing that can be measured easily.
And finally, when it comes to who does what and who gets ahead – is it fair?
Or does it have to do with who you know, what the politics are and who has the power?
And are you really getting a fair return on your investment of time in the business in terms of what you get paid?
Now, all this is quite depressing although Ehrenreich didn’t actually manage to get a job in the first place.
So she talked to lots of people who had lost their jobs and were trying to find new ones.
She learned about the “transition economy”, the services that have sprung up to help people make the leap from being unemployed to finding another job – and the issues with that.
I think her general argument is that these “professionals” haven’t done what’s needed to rise up and defend their professions – form guilds and societies and other such protective measures.
And they suffer more because in America there is less of a safety net – with healthcare and living expenses a major issue for those without jobs.
Growth areas for jobs are, unfortunately, in areas that require manual dexterity – healthcare, cleaning, fruit picking, plumbing.
But you don’t need a degree for that – what was the point of all that learning?
It’s a while since the book was written and there seems to actually be a lot of demand for employees.
The Internet has taken off in the meantime, ecommerce is a thing, lots of people are trying to figure out how to make a living as the world changes.
Taking the long view, we moved from a world of sole traders – butchers, bakers, candlestick makers – to factory workers, doing jobs in big industrial complexes.
And now, are we in a phase of connected, Internet workers – where value emerges from how teams work together rather than what jobs they do?
Have we moved from asking “What job do you do?” to “What value do you add?”
In fact, are jobs themselves, and the professionals who used to do them, a thing of the past?
And if so, what do you do now?