Millennials And Slave Labor: Why Gen-Y Is Stuck In A Never-Ending Cycle Of Unpaid Internships

Congratulations on receiving that freshly-minted college diploma!

Now, enjoy busting your tail for little-to-no pay as an intern for the next few years, striving to accrue the necessary experience to qualify you for that assistant-to-the-assistant account coordinator position.

Gone are the days when a bachelor’s degree could secure an entry-level job in your chosen field of study. In post-recession America, the new professional trajectory goes as follows:

Graduate from college with honors. Accept a position as an unpaid intern. Leave that internship in favor of another unpaid internship. Get lucky and enroll in an internship that pays minimum wage. Give up on trying to find work in your area of expertise and lockdown your first full-time job at the age of 28 at some non-profit.

While general unemployment crept down to 6.6 percent last month, jobless rates for college graduates between 20 and 24 held firm at eight percent last year.

That rate was 5.1 percent the year prior to the economic collapse in 2007, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. The overall unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds has climbed to nearly 12 percent as of January.

This new economic reality impelled companies to re-conceptualize the pedigrees they require from the freshest crop of entrants to the job market. Whereas, in the past, an internship provided young professionals with the requisite experience needed to land that first job.

Now, those same ambitious mavens are forced to churn in a cycle of internships, biding their time until luck befalls them and that evermore rare opportunity finally presents itself.

They have little choice but to endure years of thankless, salary-less remedial work before they can cast aside their intern monikers.

Unpaid internships are not a new phenomenon, but the practice has grown more popular in the wake of the Great Recession in 2008.

Historically, companies would entice unpaid college interns to join their ranks for summer stints, luring them in by providing academic credits or the promise of full-time employment at the conclusion of the internship, assuming they performed adequately.

Now, there is no promise of gainful employment at the end of an internship. And fewer companies are adhering to the Labor Department’s six criteria that must be met in order to constitute legal unpaid internships under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

These include providing similar training to that which would be given in an educational environment, creating an experience that is to the benefit of the intern, not displacing regular employees with interns and deriving no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern.

With 7.9 million jobs lost in the recession, recent college graduates now enter into the most constricted job market our nation has seen in generations.

Companies seized on the opportunity to exploit these graduates’ universally-shared fear that they would be unable to vie for the few available positions that remained after the financial collapse. In many ways, this function was necessary as companies sought to recoup their losses, replacing employees who carried hefty salaries with unpaid, ambitious young workers.

But then the economy picked up steam.

In the third financial quarter of 2012, corporate profits climbed to a record-breaking $1.75 trillion, eclipsing 2011 Q3 profits by 18.6 percent, while representing the largest after-tax profit quarter in America’s history. This accounted for a massive 11.1 percent of the US economy.

Yet in the same quarter, workers’ wages fell to 43.5 percent, their lowest-ever share of GDP. Companies with high labor that survived the recession either moved operations offshore or turned to low-cost employees and interns to minimize their operating expenses. This trend helped yield the private sector’s new reliance on temporary staff and interns.

This has resulted in an expanding class of 20-somethings who find themselves in a perpetual state of intern limbo.

These individuals have banded together to create a distinctive subculture, united by their enduring struggle to break into the market. They amalgamate in blogs, social networking platforms, and even a biannual publication called Intern Magazine.

While most are content to simply lament their plight, a few have taken proactive steps to compel reform and abolish the practice of unpaid internships.

In the past few years, a number of companies have faced a series of lawsuits from unpaid interns claiming that the conditions of their employment violated US labor laws.

Last June, a federal district judge in Manhattan ruled that Fox Searchlight studios ran afoul of minimum wage laws when it failed to pay two interns who worked on the set of “Black Swan.” In his opinion, he authorized a class action brought by an intern at Fox Entertainment Group to move forward in the courts.

While these decisions in the trial courts are not enough to mark the end of the era of unpaid internships, they do raise the legal liability for companies who engage in the practice. Summarizing that point, New York University School of Law Professor Samuel Estreicher told The Atlantic that he thinks “most potential employers are going to be very wary of getting involved in unpaid internships.”

But for now, America’s subordinate intern-class continues to labor away while pining for the day when they can finally be counted as gainfully employed in the latest jobs report.

Top Photo Credit: The Internship