what i'm reading: bait and switch by barbara ehrenreich

I just finished Barbara Ehrenreich's Bait And Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, and I highly recommend it. In a nice bit of reading coincidence, it reinforced what I encountered in another recent, excellent read, Jared Diamond's Collapse. More on that in a moment.

In Bait And Switch, with her usual keen eye, sharp wit and thorough research, Ehrenreich exposes the world of the crumbling middle class: the unemployed professional. These are people who "did everything right" - got an education, worked long hours, bought into the demands and expectations of corporate culture - and were discarded like so much disposable packaging. Downsized, reorganized, outsourced; pushed out because they're too old (over 40), or their salaries are too high, or they can no longer "compete" (survive) in the increasingly grueling world of 60-hour work-weeks and 4-hour round-trip commutes.

It's a short, highly accessible book about an ever-widening problem, the tentacles of which reach deep into our social fabric: downward mobility. Parts of the book are very funny, but it paints a very sad picture.

As if long-term unemployment or under-employment - and the consequent vanished retirement income, home foreclosure, loss of health insurance, family break-ups, depression - isn't bad enough, in a society that prizes individualism, the collective action that could seek some remedy to this vast problem does not exist. Instead of banding together to seek change, members of this new "reserve army of the unemployed" - which Karl Marx saw functioning as a whip to instill docility in the working class - blame themselves, and suffer alone. Other than the new "transition industry" that uses the unemployed for their own employment, the white-collar unemployed go largely uncounted and unnoticed.

I don't know to what extent the same situation exists in Canada. I know downsizing and outsourcing certainly take place here, as does the trend towards hiring contract workers, rather than salaried employees. I just don't know if it's as brutal and short-sighted as it is in the US.

There are some obvious differences, namely the fact that unemployment in Canada doesn't mean the end of your health insurance. However, I've heard that in Canada, Employment Insurance, as it's called, is harder to get than in the US, and also pays very little, like its US counterpart. I'm sure a reader can fill us in.

A few months ago, while I was reading Collapse, I frequently remarked to Allan how scary it was to seriously contemplate that the civilizations we now see as ruins - ancient Egypt, or the Mayans, for example - once thrived, with great technological advances, arts, culture, social systems, like our own or more so, but ultimately disappeared. He replied, quite justifiably, that the United States and Canada aren't going to just disappear. And that's true.

But a civilization's collapse is usually gradual. Perhaps it's best thought of as declining conditions - increasing numbers of people living in decreasing comfort, under harsher conditions, with lowered expectations. Fewer people controlling a greater percentage of the resources, leaving everyone else to fight for what's left. Great numbers of people reduced to surviving, with little prospect for life ever improving.

Once I pictured it that way, Allan understood immediately: we are witnessing this collapse every day. (Cross-reference my many posts about the US devolving into a third-world country.)

Bait And Switch bears witness to a huge strata of our society, previously comfortable, and with reasonable expectations of remaining so, that is now facing sharply declining standards, with prospects for that decline being temporary very, very slim. Once falling out of the middle class, most people will not climb back in.

* * * *

Next up: King Lear. Our next Soulpepper production is Lear; I haven't read it since my first semester of college (quite a long time ago!), and Allan has never read it. I know we'll get a lot more out of the performance if we read it first, so we are.

We're half-dreading the play, as it's hard to imagine the company we've been seeing doing a credible Shakespearean tragedy. But perhaps they'll surprise us.

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