After hearing these numbers, I could begin to understand why Jessica felt lucky. Maybe she is fortunate to be earning $4.35 an hour at her ivory-tower job while she works nights and weekends as a waitress. Maybe a ten-month paid internship followed by graduate school and then perhaps another internship is the new lucky, particularly at a time when so many young people can’t find work at all. At the Wilson Center, Jessica met other interns who were graduate students and spoke multiple languages. It didn’t seem far-fetched, Jessica says, to think she’d hit the job jackpot.
Still, I wondered: Where was the anger at the injustice that a smart young woman couldn’t find a permanent job and had to keep prolonging her $4.35-an-hour internship?
She wouldn’t be the first to rail against today’s intern culture. In February, Xuedan Wang, then 28, sued Hearst Corporation—which owns Harper’s Bazaar, where she had been an unpaid intern—for violating labor laws through its internship program. (According to the Department of Labor, unpaid internships are supposed to be educational and exclusively for the benefit of the intern, not the employer.) Her lawyers have turned the case into a class action against Hearst, and there have been other similar class-action suits, including one against Fox Entertainment Group that is scheduled to go to trial this spring and another that Charlie Rose settled with former unpaid interns on his PBS talk show.
“Once upon a time, companies used to invest in entry-level workers,” Wang said in an interview with the website Ed2010. “They used to train them and spend money investing in employees, and they don’t do that anymore. They’re just using interns more and more to do entry-level work.”
But Jessica is on the other end of the spectrum from Wang, and perhaps more representative of the permaterns in Washington. “I don’t think you can be angry,” she says. “It’s just how it is. People older than me are struggling.”
Sometimes, though, the disappointment hits her—a cocktail of feelings. The combination of finding out that the payoff for going to a good college is elusive, the reality of being told for two to three years after graduation that you aren’t qualified for a low-level job, and then having to go into debt to get qualified.
Ross Perlin, 29, author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, a scathing look at the internship culture, views the situation as much more insidious. “Low-paid and unpaid work is the new normal,” Perlin says, “and if you can’t do those internships you may be totally shut out of certain fields. How is that fair?”
• • •
The economics of being a permatern are pretty brutal. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Jessica can stay on her parents’ health insurance until she’s 26, defraying a major expense. Without that safety net, it’s unclear what she’d do—either forgo health insurance or ask for a subsidy from her parents, who fortunately can afford mini-bailouts for their daughter. Still, Jessica says she feels squeezed—and forget about squirreling away for a rainy day or retirement. “It’s frustrating to work 60 hours a week, be really tired, and not have any money,” she says.
To keep costs down, Jessica lives in DC’s Eckington, where her share of the rent for a group house comes to $650 a month. Before that she lived in Petworth, and when her mother came to visit from a posh suburb of San Diego, Jessica says her mom wasn’t happy about how “dilapidated” the house was and expressed concerns about safety.
Otherwise, she says, her parents are supportive: “They’re not the type to tell you just to get a job. They’re happy to help with rent.”
And therein lies one of the greatest divides between the haves and the have-nots of twentysomethings in this city. Can your parents cover some of your living expenses while you take one low-paying—but potentially career-building—internship after another?
• • •
The job market hasn’t always been structured in a way that requires college graduates to work for less than a barista for months or years on end. Perlin says that before the internship boom, in the 1950s and ’60s, the expectation was that the government, companies, and universities would invest in young people and that they, in turn, would pay the investment back by becoming taxpayers and active members of society.
“There has been a cultural shift toward something more sinister—that you have to invest in yourself and we are each out there on our own,” Perlin explains. “There is no idea of a social investment in our promising young people. Increasingly, you invest in your own human capital or your family does. There is no sense of shared responsibility.”
But aren’t there jobs for Kate, Jessica, and the hordes of other serial interns? Don’t they just need to lower their sights? No one, after all, is forcing them into professions that make getting into Harvard, with its 6-percent admissions rate, look easy. Isn’t this just another example of the entitled Gen Y attitude that sees some work as beneath them?
I ask Kate about that. “I’ve tried really desperately to find work,” she says. “If I wanted to, I could go back and work retail and get paid on commission. But that doesn’t lead me anywhere. The restaurant offered me something full-time, but that’s not a field I want to go into.”
Kate maintains she isn’t holding out for the perfect job but will wait until she gets a career-building job—a luxury she has as the child of 1960s idealists, and, more important, one with no student loans. “My parents are the two most remarkably supportive people,” Kate says. “They know I’m trying as hard as I can.”
At her last internship, at a media company, working for an “abusive boss” (the whole staff was terrified of her, Kate says) and measly pay went down easier for Kate, a political junkie, because sometimes when she went on a reporting assignment she would be standing two feet from Representative Nancy Pelosi, one of her heroes.
Permaterns spotlight what is evident to anyone who has ever applied for a job in Washington: The types of positions that a liberal-arts degree primes you for—as an aide on Capitol Hill or at the State Department, the Washington Post, the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, or the World Bank—are nearly impossible to land.
Into a bad economy, we’ve graduated a generation pining for unpaid internships at environmental nonprofits that receive 900 applicants for a single position. So many twentysomethings who come to Washington aspire to join professions that require a herculean effort to break into, offer low starting salaries, and already have a glut of young people willing to slave for practically nothing just to get a foot in the door. Kate points out that, according to a recent poll, her college major—political science—is among the least employable due to a saturation in the marketplace.
Not everyone in the generation, thankfully, awaits such a fate. Jessica’s brother, who is 28 and a mechanical aerospace engineer at SpaceX, a company that designs and manufactures spacecraft and rockets, used to tell his younger sister he couldn’t understand why she’d work for next to nothing. He has been gainfully employed and making more than he needs since the day he graduated from college, Jessica says.
So here’s another chasm in the twentysomething cohort: the one between the liberal-arts kids and the engineering and science majors, who may have never had such starkly contrasting employment options. “Engineering is an in-demand skill,” Jessica says to me in an e-mail. “International relations/policy kids are a dime a dozen, so the intern pay difference makes sense in that regard.”
Yes, good old supply and demand. But we can’t all be rocket scientists or engineers, nor should we.
The reckoning is that a prolonged internship is just the new normal for young people with aspirations of getting a cool Washington job, even for those who have advanced degrees from the most prestigious schools in the country.
• • •
In 2011, when Robert Vega, 25, a George Washington University and Harvard Law graduate, went to the Senate Placement Office, the first stop for aspiring Hill staffers, the woman who interviewed him said he was the third lawyer to come in that day. He was willing to take anything, even an entry-level position. Vega describes the job-search process in Washington as “one big competitive mess.”
Vega, however, was lucky. He had decided after some soul-searching that the big law firm wasn’t for him, so he went to Capitol Hill, giving up a six-figure salary. His internship in the office of Representative Kenny Marchant, a Texas Republican, turned into a temp job after two months and then a staff job three months after that. “I was surprised, given the degrees I had under my belt, that I had to intern,” Vega says. He calls it “humbling” to be an intern in his mid-twenties with a law degree from Harvard. But at least it was a paid position—he made $1,000 a month and supplemented that with savings.
The expectation that one’s career should be fulfilling is another reason why the mid-twenties, or even early-thirties, intern has become a familiar sight in Washington offices.
“People in this generation, despite the recession, are looking for what they really want to do, so they take a hit in the form of an internship to land one of those coveted jobs that pays the bills and is fun,” says Ryan Healy, cofounder of Brazen Careerist, a career site in Northern Virginia.
But Smith, who spends a lot of time analyzing youth unemployment, sees permaterns to be more a result of the economic rug’s being pulled out from under this generation. “The economy needs to add a really high number of youth jobs over the next ten years to get us back to where we were before,” he says. And employers in the nonprofit and media sectors—and yes, even government—aren’t going to be the engine of growth for the economy.
There are also policy levers that need to be pulled, Smith argues: “The federal government spends less than $2.5 billion annually to provide job training and workforce readiness for young adults. That’s very little.” In 2011, the US spent $718 billion on defense- and security-related activities and $731 billion on Social Security, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Like others, Smith sees a mismatch between the jobs that are available and what young people are seeking and trained for. “We just did a youth conference in Dallas on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. There is a huge demand for [people in those fields] and we don’t produce enough of those graduates to fill that need,” Smith says. “Students need to be more cognizant of the labor market.”
But as long as Washington continues to be a hub of politics, media, nonprofits, and development agencies, young people will continue to flock here to elbow their way into the region’s über-competitive ecosystems. They just might find that interning for a year or two is part of the long, hard slog into the permanent, full-time workforce. Or they’ll give up or go with plan B, as Jessica did.
How long will working for no, or very low, pay be acceptable? In the United Kingdom, Perlin says, young people have reacted very differently to internships: “There has been a lot of outrage about people working for free. It’s quite a bit newer to the social contract there.”
Of course, labor laws in Europe are much stricter than they are here, and Perlin doesn’t see any massive uprisings on the horizon in the US. Still, he thinks most young Americans view the current setup of the job market as unfair: “They just don’t think there’s anything they can do about it.”
On the bright side, Lauren Berger, founder of InternQueen, a website that partners with more than 1,000 US companies to help students find internships, says she isn’t seeing serial interns as much as she did during the peak of the recession in 2008 and 2009. Berger, a kind of motivational and tough-love personality, says that when she gets e-mails from people who have been interning for four years, she replies, “Enough with the internships already.”
If only some had that choice.
Hannah Seligson is author of "Mission Adulthood: How the 20-Somethings of Today Are Transforming Work, Love, and Life." She can be reached at missionadulthood.com.
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.