America is raising a generation of interns

Source: THE WEEK
By Hannah Seligson | March 30, 2013
“People my age expect to start at the bottom,” says one 25-year-old. “But in this economy the bottom keeps getting lower and lower.”

IN MANY WAYS, Kate 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.

She had one internship at a political organization and another at a media company and is now an unpaid intern at a lobbying firm. To make ends meet, she works as a hostess 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 20-something Kates who are scrambling to find jobs with a steady paycheck and benefits. 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.”

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 20s — who have been battered by 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.

The serial intern isn’t unique to D.C. You can find young people languishing at film studios in Los Angeles and magazine empires in New York City. The permatern phenomenon points 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.

That’s how much Jessica Schulberg, 22, made for the 10 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.

“I felt like 10 months was a long time to be there,” says Jessica. 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 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 made her feel like one of the lucky ones. During her 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.

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4 thoughts on “America is raising a generation of interns”

  1. this is very interesting. thanks for that. we need more sites like this. i commend you on your great content and excellent topic choices.

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