When I graduated from a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts and moved to Washington, D.C. to do an internship last September, I was so grateful for the opportunity and happy about the fact that somebody wanted me as a valued member of the working world. After half a year as an intern, I might have a different story to share with hundreds of thousands of millennials who are slaving away on their internship applications.
Surely I am still grateful for the opportunity I had, because I learned a lot during the process. But, did I get paid for the work I did? No. Did I work from 9 to 6 like the full-time staffers who were working there? Yes. Was I offered a job after the internship? Definitely not. After three months of my unpaid internship, I moved onto another internship position at a new place. Working full-time? Still yes. Paid? Still no. Prospective job offer? Probably not.
Hopping from one unpaid or barely paid internship to another until getting a “real” job (which oftentimes turns out to be an administrative job that's supposed to help you “get your foot in the door”) has become a fact of life now. College education that costs $50,000 a year doesn’t guarantee a job after graduation anymore. You have to undergo a slew of internships and temp jobs for months or even years to just get rid of that profound sense of professional inadequacy. After writing papers and discussing about how to change the world for four years, you are reduced to the most boring, repetitive, and mind-numbing job that often involves flat-out manual labor. In Washington D.C., one of the most (unnecessarily) highly educated cities in the world, having a master’s degree merely qualifies you for an entry-level job instead of giving you leverage.
Lately, more people are becoming conscious about how this norm of unpaid internships affects millennials’ job security. During 2013 Fashion Week, Intern Labor Rights, an intern advocacy group, carried out a campaign called “Pay Your Interns” to raise awareness of the many exploited intern laborers in the industry. Blogs like “Unfair Internships” attempt to raise awareness of the fact that interns, in fact, do have labor rights under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and, many times, companies violate these provisions by hiring interns and not paying an equitable pay for their labor.
I understand that many millennials feel voiceless in the current economy and wouldn’t dare to ask for transportation and lunch fees, when there are hundreds of other college kids waiting to take your internship the moment your boss fires you. Many don’t even know what language to express these intangible feelings of unimportance and powerlessness, since “labor rights” are not often considered as relevant to them. Maybe it’s time we stop being so grateful about our unpaid internships and start demanding better opportunities, better treatment, and rightful compensation for our labor.