For 20-somethings, the no-limits, no-pay job

Teddy Wayne’s Sunday New York Times article about the exploitation of 20-somethings in the workplace (“The No-Limits Job”) should wake up a lot of young workers and their parents. There is something seriously wrong with a corporate culture that uses extremely low-paid or even unpaid labor and then treats the workers like they own them.

The low point in the article is probably the story of Dalkey Archive Press, of Champaign, Illinois, which not only employs unpaid interns but threatens them with “immediate dismissal” if they come in late or leave early without permission, are “unavailable at night or on the weekends,” or “fail to respond to e-mails in a timely way.” But as Wayne makes clear, round-the-clock, 24-7 internships can be exploitative even when paid.

One of my personal heroes, Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, is interviewed by Wayne and warns about a sinister change in our culture that has made it acceptable to young people to give up their personal time and devote themselves to an employer, totally blurring the line between personal life and work while receiving almost no financial reward. This problem is worst in what Perlin calls the “rock-star professions”—film, TV, publishing, and media—and in creative industries like fashion, but the trend is spreading to other fields as well. Even un-hip businesses like manufacturers and law firms have begun to advertise for and employ unpaid labor, and failure to pay for overtime is endemic in white-collar work.

The Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires payment to employees of at least the minimum wage, is conveniently ignored by employers who rationalize their exploitation and illegality by arguing that the jobs are for the benefit of the interns, who usually do learn something and can put the experience on their resume. However, as Perlin explained in his book and Wayne’s article corroborates, a new phenomenon, the serial intern, is developing. A resume that shows an unpaid internship is likely to lead to another, which might lead to a poorly paid internship with excessive hours and no real hope of advancement. The value of an unpaid internship on one’s resume is declining as more and more students and college graduates fall into them. One young woman Wayne describes had internships “at five artistic and cultural institutions” in Denver and San Francisco but ended up without a paying job in the field.

It’s no accident that all of the exploited interns in Wayne’s article are women. Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writing in The Atlantic (which pays its interns), says women are more likely to be taken advantage of because a “subconscious belief—that young, middle-class-seeming women are somehow automatically taken care of financially—has persisted to this day.” Bovy argues that “it’s this assumption that prevents even otherwise progressive sorts from taking action to prevent the rise of the unpaid internship.”

Madeleine Schwartz in Dissent cites an Intern Bridge study that found that three-fourths of unpaid interns are women. Schwartz argues that the same psychological and social phenomena that cause women’s work to be generally underpaid combine to make the work of many young women unpaid altogether.

Advice for interns usually stresses their need to be adaptable, as well as enthusiastic, submissive, and obedient. Common tips available on the Internet include that the intern “be a chameleon,” shifting his or her behavior to suit the current workplace. Another counsels constant apology: “I would suggest starting off [emails] with ‘Sorry to bother you’ the first few times.” Countless job descriptions repeat their demands: “flexible, energetic, creative, and enthusiastic”; “flexible, enthusiastic and highly motivated with a positive attitude”; “enthusiastic and flexible learners, capable of both taking direction and working independently.

By requiring that workers at the beginning of their careers learn these behaviors, employers don’t just introduce newcomers to an office environment, they teach them how to be grateful for whatever work opportunities they may have, no matter how unfruitful. No task should be too unpleasant and no job too much of an imposition for someone just happy to have the chance to work. It’s not enough to recognize one’s gratefulness for actually having a job. The key is in showing it. “Thank you for this opportunity,” runs the mantra.

It’s time to stop this disease from spreading farther. As President Obama pushes for a higher minimum wage, he should also push for stronger enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act. If college-educated workers can be employed for nothing, the fate of the non-college workforce, whose wages have been stagnant or declining for decades, will be in greater jeopardy. The revival of the middle class in America depends on everyone, including young women, receiving a fair day’s pay for a day’s work.