The (Futile) Pursuit of
the American Dream
by Barbara Ehrenreich
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2005 256 pp $24
Barbara Ehrenreich is probably the most widely read writer on the left of the last decade. Her last book, Nickel and Dimed, published in 2001, sold more than a million copies and has spent more than a hundred weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It’s still on the paperback best-seller list. It’s been assigned in more than 2,500 college courses. Nickel and Dimed described in an irresistible style the author’s firsthand experience of work at the bottom of the ladder— as a waitress, a house cleaner, a Wal-Mart worker. It is part of an old and honorable left-wing genre that includes Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London and Michael Harrington’s The Other America. Nickel and Dimed worked because Ehrenreich’s writing is so vivid and her persona combines an appealing warmth and humor with political analysis that is smart and convincing.
How do you follow that up? What do you do for a sequel?
The last book was about her experience of blue-collar employment; the new book is about her experience of white-collar unemployment—at a time when 20 percent of the unemployed are white-collar professionals—1.6 million people. This is another first-person story about Barbara going underground into the world of work and taking notes. For this project, Ehrenreich made some rules for herself: she needed a new identity, so that potential employers wouldn’t be able to Google her. (When I searched for “Barbara Ehrenreich” I got 2,750,000 results.) So she changed legally back to her birth name, Barbara Alexander, and got a Social Security card that matched. Then she had to come up with a plausible set of skills. Because she’s a writer and public speaker, she decided to market herself in the field of “public relations”—she calls it “journalism’s evil twin.” Her rules decreed that she would “do everything possible to land a job,” that she would “go anywhere for a job or even an interview,” and that she would “take the first job I was offered that met my requirements as to income and benefits.” She planned to devote ten months and five thousand dollars for travel and expenses to the job search. The plan was that, once she got a job, she would work at it for a while before quitting and writing about it.
At the outset Ehrenreich had one tremendous advantage over people who really are unemployed: she had experienced none of the well-known psychological damage suffered by the jobless. She had no doubts about her self-worth, her ability to make a living, or her attractiveness as a human being. She was not in danger of depression, divorce, or drug abuse. She also had one serious disadvantage: she was a middle-aged woman who, her story went, had been out of the...
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