One thing you'll notice if you spend any time following youth issues in the media is that coverage comes in waves. The Pew releases a report, new employment stats for the quarter come out, etc. and all of the mainstream outlets take a turn at reinventing the wheel via their own spins on the story du jour. In the last few days, the illegal and, in some quarters, unethical nature of unpaid internships has been on the front burner.
There are clear and not inconsequential issues around workplace safety, workers' rights and the exploitation of eager young things as coffee-fetchin' grist for the capitalist mill, but what these stories gloss over in a perfunctory couple of sentences is the contribution that unpaid internships make to widening the inequality of access to upwardly mobile jobs in corporate America. Internships are now seen as the de facto door openers to launching one's career on the right foot, but if the majority of those internships are unpaid, the students who reap their benefits are the ones who have the resources (personal or familial) to support themselves for several months sans income. Those who don't have that luxury are forced to seek out jobs that will keep them afloat financially. Even if these positions provide hard skills that will benefit students in their future careers, they lack the cachet of an internship on Capitol Hill or at a Fortune 500 company. Regardless of whether said internships include job content much beyond fetching coffee and babysitting the photocopier, as a signaling credential for future employers (which is a real but often unacknowledged value of internships), they blow a summer spent as assistant manager at Big Bob's Mini-Putt and All-Night Bingo right out of the water.
It creates a vicious Catch-22. If internships are the price of admission to corporate America, you can't afford not to pursue one if that's your ultimate career destination, but if they're unpaid, you can't afford to take one if you don't have the resources to work without pay for three or four months. Experience is swell and all, but when the choice comes down to resume boosting vs. paying your rent, the immediate will always take precedence, even at the expense of future benefit. When you're at a financial disadvantage, the relative luxury of thinking in terms of short-term pain for long-term gain is laughable. What good is growing your LinkedIn network and a glowing reference from the VP of Marketing if you can't afford your tuition next semester?
The Economic Policy Institute does have a legislative proposal in the works that suggests offering low-income students stipends for internships in the not-for-profit and government sectors. And while that's a start, it doesn't account for the fact that many of the most attractive internships are in the private sector and that, in an ideal world, a student's financial means (and her/his lack of connections) shouldn't be an insurmountable hurdle to pursuing a dream of growing up to be a self-aggrandizing social media "rockstar/ninja/guru" hybrid for one of the country's leading digital ad agencies.
Of course, the issue goes beyond unpaid internships and encompasses what I refer to as the self-actualization gap (shouting out my boy Maslow), wherein the Haves (both within America and globally) have the resources (time, money, a support system, institutional access) to pursue opportunities and activities (everything from high school sports participation to yoga classes to kicking back reading trashy novels on the patio) purely for the purposes of edification/enrichment, self-improvement, recreation, etc., while the Have Nots are more than likely too busy making ends meet to devote their already fragmented attention and energy to such pursuits. The idea of the self-actualization gap (especially as it relates to Gen Y and the characteristics that are validated and extrapolated as representative of the whole when our cohort is placed under the analytical microscope) is one I hope to revisit in future posts. Hint: the staff members of Big Bob's rarely get to stand up and be counted.