In so many ways, Kate, who was born in 1987, is a perfect reflection of the opportunities and hardships of being young today. She’s smart and motivated and has a degree from an Ivy League school, yet at 25 she worries she’ll never attain the status or lifestyle of her boomer parents. She majored in political science and has a burnished social conscience, something she honed teaching creative writing in a women’s prison. But Kate’s most salient—and at this point, defining—generational trait might be that she doesn’t have a full-time job. Instead, she has been an intern for a year and a half.
Kate moved to DC after dropping out of her first year of law school. She has cycled through one internship at a political organization and another at a media company and is now biding her time as an unpaid intern at a lobbying firm. To make ends meet, she works as a hostess in Adams Morgan three or four nights a week, which means she often clocks 15-hour days.
“I don’t mean to sound like I have an ego, but I am an intelligent, hard-working person,” Kate says. “Someone would be happy they hired me.”
It’s a refrain heard many times from the millions of twentysomething Kates who are scrambling to find jobs with a steady paycheck and benefits. Mostly, though, they want to find a way out of the low-paying—or nonpaying—apprenticeship track. For Kate, it feels more like an internship vortex.
After all, who wants to still be an intern at an age when you should have a 401(k) and a modicum of job security, or at least be earning more than you did at your summer job during high school? “People my age expect to start at the bottom,” Kate says, “but in this economy the bottom keeps getting lower and lower.”
Welcome to the slow, sputtering economic recovery, Generation Y.
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When I ask Kate how many jobs she’s applied for, she says: “Like a million.”
Desperate as she is, the Department of Labor doesn’t consider her to be unemployed, because she has two jobs. Instead, Kate, who often works more than 60 hours a week, is in a class of workers who don’t show up in government reports. She’s one of the “permaterns”—those perpetual interns, mostly in their twenties—who have been battered by the winds of the recession and are holding out hope that the conventional career wisdom that an internship leads to a job isn’t folklore from a bygone era—like the 1990s.
The serial intern isn’t unique to our region. You can find young people languishing at film studios in Los Angeles and magazine empires in New York City. Similarly, Washington’s job pyramid, at least in many industries, often doesn’t start at entry level; it starts at internship. Our area is now home to one of the largest intern-industrial complexes in the country, one that extends well past the bustling summer months.
When Young Invincibles, a youth-advocacy organization in DC, posts a job opening, it gets hundreds of applications. Says cofounder Aaron Smith, 30: “I’m blown away by the number of back-to-back internships and how hard it is to go from an internship into a full-time paid position.”
This is where the permatern phenomenon starts to point toward wider trends in the economy—namely the cutthroat competition for knowledge-economy jobs, the lack of investment in this generation, and the skills gap between what a generation weaned on a liberal-arts education is trained for and what the in-demand skills and professions are right now (i.e., not another poli-sci or English major). The result? For many in Washington, the American dream starts with a highbrow internship that pays $4.35 an hour—then another, and maybe another.
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That’s how much Jessica Schulberg, 22, made for the ten months she worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a haven for academics and journalists researching public-policy issues. Every month, before taxes, Jessica was paid a stipend of $700, supplemented by waitressing and bartending at Mr. Henry’s on Capitol Hill.
“I felt like ten months was a long time to be there,” says Jessica, a 2011 graduate of the University of California, Santa Barbara. But with only a bachelor’s degree, she felt she wasn’t qualified for many entry-level jobs, a suspicion confirmed by numerous rejections. The places where she was applying—think tanks and nonprofits—were all “receiving a million applications from people just like me,” she says.
So Jessica went with plan B: two years of graduate school at American University to earn a master’s in international politics. A partial scholarship made the decision easier, but Jessica says she’ll have to go into debt to cover some of the $50,000 a year in tuition. She’ll graduate next year.
Somewhat amazingly, Jessica is upbeat about her situation. The internship at the Wilson Center, a coveted and prestigious position, made her feel like one of the lucky ones. During her longer-than-anticipated stint, she assisted foreign-policy heavyweights like Michael Adler, a foreign correspondent for Agence France-Presse, on a book about diplomacy in Iran. She did research for Mark Mazzetti, a national-security correspondent for the New York Times.
“My friend and I joke that we got paid to read and write about topics that we’re interested in,” says Jessica, an aspiring foreign correspondent.
But talking to her, I wonder: When did “lucky” become working for below minimum wage for months on end? Jessica doesn’t pause when I ask her this—it’s clearly a bargain she has mulled many times: “You either do what you like to do for free or you have an entry-level job for $25,000 where you answer the phone and are someone’s assistant. It’s this weird compromise people my age have to make.”
If you want to work in the foreign-policy arena, as many bright college graduates do, there are some major barriers to entry. And Jessica has made peace with them—mostly.
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Has it always been this hard to break into even the most competitive jobs in DC?
In a word, no.
Take Mazzetti, 38, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the forthcoming book The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth. Jessica was his research assistant at the Wilson Center.
When he was starting out in the late 1990s, Mazzetti interned at the Economist’s Washington bureau. “In the old days, there were internships in journalism that gave paths to more regular jobs,” he says. For example, his internship turned into a “super-stringer” position that sent him to Austin, Texas. “I could pay the rent, and it was a blast,” he recalls.
“It does seem like, in general, it is harder to get anything full-time and permanent in Washington now because of the economy,” Mazzetti says. “Young and incredibly smart people have to take jobs for no money or very little money.”
Internship coordinators around town say they’re seeing more applicants with advanced degrees and previous internships than in the past. At the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think tank, about seven young people apply for each $7.25-an-hour intern slot. Those positions are coveted because many see a Heritage internship as an entry point into other policy or law jobs in DC, says Heather Pfitzenmaier, director of the foundation’s Young Leaders Program.
But the full-time jobs that are supposed to follow a prestigious internship aren’t as plentiful as they once were. “At the end of 2007, every intern had a job lined up,” Pfitzenmaier says. Now more are going on to another internship after the Heritage Foundation stint.
Similarly, a 2012 study by Millennial Branding, a research and consulting firm aimed at Generation Y, found that while 91 percent of the 225 surveyed employers said students should have one to two internships before they graduate, half of the employers hadn’t hired any interns in the previous six months. In other words, internships don’t always lead to a job offer.
That means that a lot of twentysomethings are layering internships in their immediate post-college years and not landing a real full-time job until they’re at least 24 or 25—so a chunk of this generation is deferring their earning potential for at least half of their twenties.
To get one of the most sought-after internships—the kind you need before you can get a job with benefits—it’s increasingly necessary to have apprenticed somewhere else first. At the Corcoran Gallery of Art, for example, which gets around 250 applicants and accepts 6 to 15 each fall, spring, and summer, those with prior internships have an advantage, says Susannah Brown, who until recently was the museum’s internship coordinator.
Aaron Smith of Young Invincibles wonders if all these apprenticeships are working against his generation. When prospective employers see internships of long duration, they might understandably wonder: Why didn’t the person get hired by the organization after working there for a year?
Smith takes a more forgiving stance: “Usually, it’s just a case of people holding out for a job opening that didn’t pan out.”
Those internships that offer a pathway to a full-time position are that much more competitive. At the Atlantic Media Company, which publishes the Atlantic and several other magazines, Katherine Cusani-Visconti, senior vice president for talent and culture, says a high percentage of fellows move into other roles in the organization. But an internship at the company—which includes an educational component and “full immersion” into one of the business units—is among the toughest to land: The company receives 1,000 résumés for 25 positions. That’s about a 2-percent acceptance rate.