Young Workers Face Overwhelming Expectations

Last Friday, the New York Times ran a sad, fascinating article about the unreasonable workplace demands placed on today’s young professionals, especially those in “prestige” fields like media and publishing.

After a mini-profile of a representative young worker, the story contextualizes those unreasonable demands with data:

“If I’m not at the office, I’m always on my BlackBerry,” said Casey McIntyre, 28, a book publicist in New York. “I never feel like I’m totally checked out of work.”

Ms. McIntyre is just one 20-something — a population historically exploitable as cheap labor — learning that long hours and low pay go hand in hand in the creative class. The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

“We need to hire a 22-22-22,” one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. Perhaps the middle figure is an exaggeration, but its bookends certainly aren’t. According to a 2011 Pew report, the median net worth for householders under 35 dropped by 68 percent from 1984 to 2009, to $3,662. Lest you think that’s a mere side effect of the economic downturn, for those over 65, it rose 42 percent to $170,494 (largely because of an overall gain in property values). Hence 1.2 million more 25-to-34-year-olds lived with their parents in 2011 than did four years earlier.

(Emphasis added.)

Those facts paint a stark picture: in this economic environment, young workers are unusually vulnerable to exploitation. The article provides another case study in sky-high employer expectations:

This commitment is what Lucy Schiller, 24, demonstrated over two years in Denver and San Francisco, yet nothing panned out. Ms. Schiller falls into Mr. Perlin’s category of a “serial intern.” While working the 4:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift four days a week for minimum wage at a cafe (where her manager would take half her tips in front of her), she interned, usually for no pay, at five artistic and cultural institutions as she juggled side projects.

The unpaid-internship anecdotes sprinkled throughout the piece make no mention of the fact that such internships are very often unlawful—a reality which is only beginning to be acted upon in the courts.

It’s not often that comments on online articles add substance to the issue at hand. But this story is a happy exception. For once, it is worth quoting a comment in its entirety. “Emsegal” writes:

Where is the Department of Labor in all of this? The NYT recently ran a story saying that unpaid internships violate labor law unless they provide specific training relevant to a job. If that is true every one of these “employers” should be prosecuted.

I employ interns every summer and each one earns at least $15/hour. I could get young people to “intern” for free but it is W-R-O-N-G. When did “wrong” stop mattering?

That said, the Times put a human face on workplace exploitation, and that is commendable; too often, dry statistics about employment obscure how workers’ lives are actually impacted. The Harman Firm offers aggressive representation to real people facing unethical and illegal workplace practices. Contact us today with any questions about wage-and-hour, discrimination, or other employment concerns.