One Way to Help the "Lost Generation" | Lindsey Pollak's Blog

One Way to Help the “Lost Generation”

lostgenerationA 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:

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  1. Carrie says:

    Thank you for a great point – I recently graduated with my MA degree and have been having a very difficult time finding work. I keep hearing that I should take what I can get but with bills needing to be paid and food needing to be bought, if all I can get is an unpaid internship, I can’t take it. As you mentioned, even $100-200/week would be a huge help compared to the $0 I’m earning now but companies are offering unpaid internships as if they’re golden treats.

    Like many of my friends I’m considering getting a job in a service industry — waitressing, etc. — just to pay the bills. I fear for the future of industries who aren’t working with recent grads. By the time the economy picks up, 2008/09/10 grads will not have the work experience they should and may be unable to compete with people fresh out of school.

  2. […] 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. (more…) […]

  3. M says:

    Thank you! I graduated in 2008 from an Ivy and moved to ny the same week Lehman Brothers fell. It has been so frustrating over the past year to see business advertising “internships” that are really just entry level positions. It has meant that there were so few actual entry level positions that I could not find work for the better part of a year, and am still underemployed, being paid about $20,000 less than I ought to be, in a field that is nowhere near my intended career path and way below my education and abilities. I don’t mean that in a snobby way, I mean it in a “my future is growing dimmer by the minute” way. Additionally, like you said, unpaid internships allow those who have money and privilege to get ahead or stay ahead, and stunts the upward mobility of those who do not.

  4. As both a Generation Yer myself and a Generation Y Marketer, I am slightly taken aback by what you are saying here Lindsey. The notion that recent college graduates working for free is somehow a responsibility of an employer is simply, well, wrong. I brought on a summer intern this last season and he did a fantastic job, no one argues that. But to say that I should have paid him takes away from his responsibility to himself. For unpaid internships to be viewed as something that should be avoided or perhaps even morally reprehensible is in fact both itself. This period of survival for Generation Y is the “growing up” that WE ALL need to do.

  5. Lauren Porat says:

    Great article Lindsey. While it’s true that many employers AND students are turning to unpaid internships for all of the reasons you cite, on about 41% of posted jobs on the site as of the end of October were for paid positions. This was down from 48% in September, but still up from 36% in August. We hope that an improving economy will help grow this percentage as well.
    I would also encourage job-seekers to apply for unpaid internships even if they’re really hoping for a paid job, because an unpaid job can often turn into a paying one, and even if it doesn’t, oftentimes the connections and experience you get on the job are worth it. Many times, just by virtue of the fact that it IS an unpaid internship, employers will feel that they have to go that extra mile to help you in you career development. However, make sure your employer is aware of your goals and is on board with them before you start.
    Good luck!
    Lauren Porat

  6. Mark Presnell says:

    Great post Lindsey, I couldn’t agree with you more. By not paying interns, we, as a society, simply perpetuate the growing wealth disparity between classes. Students who can intern for free are able to do so because of financial support from their parents and family. After completing their internship(s), students have a stronger resume and much more competitive for the top positions. Thus, they are more likely to be employed and more likely to achieve better opportunities.

  7. Thank you all for these thoughtful comments. I look forward to continuing the conversation about paid internships — it’s a hot topic!


  8. Genevieve says:

    Thank you for posting this! I often feel like businesses who can afford to pay people are taking advantage of the recession. I’ve been asked to interview for so many underpaying jobs that provide no health insurance. It is ridiculous! I’m willing to work but geez, can you pay me enough to eat, live, and afford my health insurance?

  9. Bobby says:

    You are right. The time for unpaid internships is before graduation. You are also right about business owners taking advantage of the recession and trying to get away with paying low or no wages at all. It would be benificial to all involved if a fair wage was paid to the employee to keep them working to their potential, as well as the employer to keep up their productivity.

  10. Zoe says:

    You neglected to mention one very significant element of internships in your article. Most internships, regardless of being paid or unpaid, are designed and offered to full-time college *STUDENTS* receiving college *CREDIT*. If an applicant does not meet these credentials, that applicant is not eligible to apply! This is especially true of major Fortune-500 companies. Of course, some are more lenient and will accept applicants up to 3-5 months after graduation.

    Still, where does this leave the bright, 2008 college graduate with a BS in rocket science? According to entry-level hiring managers, we have no experience, and yet we are not eligible for internships because we have been out of school too long. Its a catch-22. I never thought I would be jealous of the laid off Lehman employees, but at least they now have experience. At least they got their START!

  11. john says:

    I agree with Zoe. What the hell, Lindsey?

  12. @John – not sure what you mean. Can you clarify your comment?

  13. @Genevieve, @Bobby and @Zoe – thanks for your comments and adding to the conversation!


  14. Dr. G says:

    I own a start – up and have recently recruited a paid graduate and we were approached by a young French intern. She’s with us for 3 months and we can only afford to pay her travel costs. While I agree that interns can easily be (and are) exploited, in our case, the intern will go back to her course with a huge amount of experience from a short period of time. I suggest that interns try to find roles with smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. In my view these are environments in which more is expected and therefore more useful skills and experience gained

  15. Mike says:

    The problem with interning at smaller companies, Dr. G, is that they have less credibility on a resume than big companies. Although you may have a richer experience interning for “Joe Schmoe” Asset Management, it will be far easier getting job interviews with “Goldman Sachs” Asset Management on your resume. Also, big companies are more likely to hire their interns afterwords because they have so many more jobs to fill than small companies. In the end, the goal is not just to learn, but to get a job. Nobody wants to be an intern forever.

  16. Lianne says:

    This is great to read. As a 2009 graduate, I now have two internships – one paid (though very little), one not. They both offer me great experience and contacts and I feel lucky to have them (especially the paid one), but the fact that I work almost full time and finish each week with a little over a hundred dollars is disheartening, to say the least. I can only hope they will benefit me directly and quickly, whether through a job at one of the companies or through the contacts Ive made. I hope companies hear your advice, because while I know recent graduates will always be willing to work for free for a time when the internship is right, it is certainly a tough and depressing step to take out of college.

  17. @Lianne – Thanks so much for sharing your story. Good luck and hang in there!


  18. Dr. G says:

    I run a start up and we’re starting to implement the idea of virtual interns. We advertise for part – time interns (mainly university students) who are prepared to give us an hour a week of their time to work on agreed projects. In return, we help them to identify the skills they’re building, will help them to rewrite their CV’s and provide them with a reference. So, a win/win.

  19. @Dr. G – That sounds like a smart, mutually beneficial arrangement. Thanks for sharing.


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  21. liushujuan says:

    Like many of my friends I’m considering getting a job in a service industry — waitressing, etc. — just to pay the bills. I fear for the future of industries who aren’t working with recent grads. By the time the economy picks up, 2008/09/10 grads will not have the work experience they should and may be unable to compete with people fresh out of school.