Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Coda

"Life's Work" in the Times this week is about kids competing for a PR internship at a big firm.
Eight of them, out of 20 finalists, out of 200 applicants, will be awarded a $400 a week summer internship. Hey, that's a living wage, so that's good! More specifically, you could easily afford to live here.
Lisa Belkin hits two themes that ring true for me:
....competition has ratcheted up over the years, and this generation of students — students who need a Nobel prize just to get into college — are conquering peaks to gain experience that might lead to their first jobs...
but on the other hand, there is
...a shift in the mind-set of the most sought-after candidates. Not only do they tend to respect something they must compete for, but they also demand more from a job than a future and a paycheck." These kids, they have dreams. Crazy, I know.

ps. a brilliant friend leapt gallantly to my defense vs this guy. The ensuing conversation focused on the question: should you be grateful to have a job at all?
In this economy, yes. All other things being equal? Gratitude is certainly what I experience every time I sell a story, or get off the phone with a kind editor. We all do work for lots of different motivations and have lots of emotions around work. I am reading a fascinating book that touches on that right now.

But good feelings are not sufficient. I think if you're performing useful work that you ought to be paid a decent wage; that's the contract implicit in work and it used to be federal law, before our minimum wage flatlined to a 60-year low. This belief, of course, makes me a BIG FAT LIBERAL.

W/r/t unpaid internships, the argument goes like this: EITHER the interns are doing absolutely nothing useful, in which case the value for them is nil and for the firm nothing but added expense, OR they are performing useful work that adds value to the firm, in which case they are subject to minimum wage laws.

In America as recently as the 1980s most people who had jobs also had employer-provided health care and a good number had pensions. These benefits were hard won mostly by union organizers over decades, first in the streets at risk of life and limb, later by big union bureaucracies working in collusion with government and business to provide deals that benefited all parties--not without corruption, on all sides. However, today, that instrument of negotiation on behalf of workers has essentially withered, and workers' benefits have withered right along with it.
(caveat: globalization blah blah, lots of other factors. But why no labor provisions in international trade agreements that enabled globalization?)
[Btw, the overwhelming reason young workers aren't unionized is not just that they're young but that the majority of them are employed in the minimum-wage, low-wage, service workforce, making up the bulk of that workforce. And the average age in unionized working-class jobs is going up because--surprise!--people hold onto those jobs.]

This generation of youngish influential educated workers especially seem to have internalized this "brand called me" New Economy crap that we're all entrepreneurs, and we're going to become the boss very very soon, so we don't need (or deserve?) benefits or any modicum of security. So yeah, I do think we need a more "agonistic labor-capital relationship". Just as a corrective. Some call it "resistance."
Oh, you guys got me--i'm a 'bloggin now!


Holly Godarkly said...

Read your book and thought it was good. Good thing I bought it before I knew your background, so I didn't unfairly dismiss you like some wags.

Question: How big a difference do you think that paying a wage for an internship in a competitive field really has on who gets it -- and who ends up with the real jobs in that field? It would be nice to think it diversifies the pool, but I suspect that the same people from the same narrow range of schools and backgrounds will fill the desirable positions. Like you pointed out in your book, most college students don't fit that mold.

I remember one summer, a friend of mine who attended Yale told me she had gotten a paid summer internship with a California-based political group at home in California. I was living at home, attending a state school, and also looking for a summer internship. When the group came to my campus to recruit, I showed up. I thought if I wowed them I could get a similar gig and we could work together.

Turns out the "internship" being offered on my campus was the chance to go door-to-door and ask for donations. We'd get paid a percentage of whatever we collected. Not only did the recruiter not need wowing, I didn't even have to be a student; any random nut could sign up. Whereas, my friend would be working in an office in the city with other college students (also private East Coast, as I found out later). No cold-call, commission-only hustling for them.

I asked the recruiter about those internships. He hemmed and hawed, and said those were already filled; also something like, "Your school isn't part of that program." So, the real internships were basically set aside for the elite schools.

You described education as "a lottery for elevator tickets." Apt, except from what I've seen in the professional world, most people on the higher floors didn't ride an elevator. They were already there. Do you think it's possible that there are simply far more smart people than there are jobs for them? Maybe we just have to accept that intellectual work is only for a certain sector of society, because that sector already produces plenty of people who are well-qualified to staff those jobs.

After all, my Yale friend was very bright and capable, and I'm sure the political group did at least as well with her as it would have done with me. The few journalists I saw make careers in big media were all at least upper-middle-class and from private schools, but they were all pretty talented, too.

Anya said...

Holly, Thanks for stopping by.
In journalism, I definitely think it's a goal, and value, to have people from diverse social backgrounds reporting the news. To the extent that we fail at that, we're limiting the perspectives that get heard in our society, and that's bad for everybody. It's bad for democracy.

I think class diversity is just as important for a lot of intellectual professions, if not most. Social work? Yup, you want people who grew up working class doing that. Lawyer? Absolutely. Professor? Yes. Doctor? Yes. Politician? More than anything. You get the picture.

So what then? Class-based affirmative action, maybe? Am I going to give up my journalistic position so that someone with fewer advantages can replace me? Lucky for me, it doesn't exactly work that way, but I do feel an obligation to (and often do) share my time and resources with young journalistic hopefuls, particularly those who came from less likely/fortunate backgrounds than I did.