One Way to Help the “Lost Generation”

A recent BusinessWeek cover story called today’s graduates “The Lost Generation,” citing statistics that young people who graduate in recession years continue to earn less over the long-term course of their careers.

This weekend, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert addressed the same issue, writing:

“These recent graduates have done everything society told them to do. They’ve worked hard, kept their noses clean and gotten a good education (in many cases from the nation’s best schools). They are ready and anxious to work. If we’re having trouble finding employment for even these kids, then we’re doing something profoundly wrong.”

Like BusinessWeek and Herbert, I am very worried about the situation for recent college graduates. Today I want to share with you what I’m doing about it:

I have and always will pay any interns who work for me. If you are a business owner, I ask that you do the same.

The reason I call myself a Generation Y career and workplace expert is because I spend my days studying and talking to college students, recent grads, university career services professionals and employers of entry-level workers. Lately, a major topic of these conversations has been the fact that so many ambitious, energetic, intelligent college graduates are currently working for free as unpaid interns.

Bob Herbert has noticed this as well. “As jobs become increasingly scarce,” he writes, “more and more college graduates are working for free, at internships, which is great for employers but something of a handicap for a young man or woman who has to pay for food or a place to live.”

Certainly unpaid post-college internships have been popular for many years, particularly in glamorous, highly competitive fields such as magazine publishing, fashion and politics, or in the nonprofit world where employers simply can’t afford to pay. Over the years I have regularly advised students, particularly those interested in internship-heavy professions, to get the best experience they can, which often means working for free.

But, before the recession, most students did internships before graduating, to receive college credit or to gain “real world” experience over the summer. Today, a large number of college-educated young people are working as unpaid interns after graduation, in the hopes that they may one day receive paid positions. This holds them back from becoming financially independent, and it means that students with no family support are excluded from many opportunities because they have to make money to support themselves.

Bottom line: companies that can afford to should pay their interns. Right now lots of businesses that could pay interns are taking advantage of the recession and bringing in recent grads to work for free, simply because they can.

If you are a business owner of any size and you employ or are thinking about employing an unpaid intern, I encourage you to reconsider and pay that young person a decent wage. A relatively small amount of money, such as $100 or $200 a week , probably won’t impact your bottom line, but will help a young person get by and get experience.

I recently hired a part-time assistant, who is a 2009 college grad. She works 10 hours per week and I pay her a fair hourly wage. She works additional hours for another business owner, who also pays her for her work. I have paid an intern in the past and will pay all interns in the future.

If you are concerned about older workers or rural workers or single moms or any other demographic hit hard by the recession, then hire and pay an intern or part-time worker in that situation. (For more on adult internships, read Marci Alboher’s column on the topic.)

I know that my paying interns won’t move the needle on job creation or GDP, but it’s a small step toward helping the next generation avoid becoming “lost.” I want to see young people succeed and receive payment for work they perform. This is why I will always pay my interns and I encourage you to do the same.

Resources for hiring interns:

Share this post

hi, i'm lindsey!

Lindsey is a globally recognized career and workplace expert and the leading voice on generational diversity. She has spoken for more than 300 audiences including Google, Goldman Sachs, Estee Lauder, Stanford and Wharton. Lindsey is the author of four career and workplace advice books, and her insights have appeared in media outlets including The TODAY Show, CNBC, NPR, the Harvard Business Review and the Wall Street Journal.


Learn 25 Practical Ways to Manage Across Generations