Can The Intern Hamster Wheel Be Stopped?

If we don’t figure this out, creative industries are going to wither and die.

Shutterstock/granata68

Far too many “millennials,” it has been said countless times — most recently in last weekend’s New York Times — are caught in a neverending cycle of short-term, under-, or unpaid gigs in industries like media, fashion, and entertainment in expensive cities like New York and Los Angeles. They are perma-interns who, long after they graduated from college, have little hope in ever finding full-time employment in their chosen fields.

One of the women interviewed in the Times story told the reporter:

“In any given month, I’d say I apply to at least 300 full-time jobs,” she said, noting these attempts were to no avail. “On the other hand, I can apply to one or two internship positions a month and get a call back from both.”

Well, that’s depressing. The article blames “the moribund economy” for hers and others’ situations. And certainly, even in the last few years, internships have evolved from what college students did to help them get jobs to job replacements for many college graduates — an ultimately unsustainable proposition.

Getting a job in a creative industry was never easy — and creative industries tend to be kinder to those with the money and/or connections to break in. That’s not to say that someone without money or the right alumni or family connections can’t break in, just that it will be (much) harder, and making those connections on your own is tough. Sending out 300 résumés is likely to yield fewer results than one well-placed phone call. Not only that, but many of these industries, particularly the music industry, are contracting. Aspiring to be an executive in a dying industry is perhaps not the most realistic career path.

Two things I think need to happen: People who are on the internship hamster wheel for years need to think about whether these industries are right for them, and we who are now in charge need to figure out a way to be able to hire the brightest, most creative people if we want our industries to survive. Keeping the gates completely closed to young people — and their new ideas and perspectives — is probably the fastest way to ensure our collective irrelevance.

The glory days. Via fanpop.com

But even if we change the way we think about hiring, jobs in the creative industry still won’t suddenly be easy to get, and I don’t think they should be. The now-prevalent idea that your work should be your passion — aka “do what you love” — has, I think, led to a mind-set in which people feel like failures if they want to be in a creative field but are not employed in one. But doing what you love, as Miya Tokumitsu eloquently explained in Jacobin magazine in January, is a double-edged sword:

Nothing makes exploitation go down easier than convincing workers that they are doing what they love. Instead of crafting a nation of self-fulfilled, happy workers, our DWYL era has seen the rise of the adjunct professor and the unpaid intern — people persuaded to work for cheap or free, or even for a net loss of wealth.

And paradoxically, the explosion of internships in creative fields has led to an environment in which people, who are in fact not qualified for the jobs they desire so badly, can continue to just barely work in those fields. But we, the employers in those industries, have never explicitly told them no. We’ve never told them, hey, this profession — whether it’s film or magazine publishing or the music industry or journalism — is maybe not for you. There’s not going to be a job for you here, or maybe anywhere, so why don’t you do something else? Instead, they float from internship to internship, getting that proximity to the excitement and the cachet of those industries but never really fully being allowed in.

Perhaps it’s related to the “trophy kid” phenomenon touched on by Megan McArdle in a recent post on the Atlantic’s website adapted from her new book The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success. In her post, she writes that this generation of recent college graduates “was brought up to believe that there should be no winners and no losers, no scrubs or MVPs. Everyone, no matter how ineptly they perform, gets a trophy.”

This idea about this generation of kids has been around for years; in 2007, Po Bronson wrote a cover story for New York Magazine called “How Not To Talk to Your Kids” that argued that contemporary parents were praising their children too much, which was creating a mind-set that everything they did was great — and making them more reluctant to fail. McArdle writes that she was initially skeptical of the idea that “Trophy Kids” were unique to this generation, but that after talking to people who have been hiring college graduates for decades, she’s come to realize that this generation really is different: “They demand concrete, well-described tasks and constant feedback, as if they were still trying to figure out what was going to be on the exam,” and quotes an employer who told the author of the book Not Everyone Gets a Trophy, “It’s very hard to give them negative feedback without crushing their egos.”

I work with a lot of people between the ages of 22 and 25, and is all this true? Eh. I’ll counter McArdle’s anecdotal evidence with some of my own, which is that many people in creative industries have fragile egos, whether they’re 22 or 32 or 42, and that some 22-year-olds take criticism well, just like some older people do. Certainly the 22-year-olds I work with are more enthusiastic, open-minded, creative, and focused than I was at 22. And there are more of them and fewer jobs, so they don’t have as many chances to fuck up. How are you supposed to get experience failing if failing isn’t really an option anymore?

The workplace of the future. Via giphy.com

So now the onus has shifted to people like me, who are hiring them and managing them — and, I think, collectively failing them. When we get internship applications from people who have had three, four, five, or more internships in our field, with no full-time job on their résumé, it is kinder for us to reject them than perpetuate the hope that they might one day break through. But we also need to think about where we want our industries to go, and how we can change things to be able to bring in the best new minds.

I think the solution to this is to reduce the number of internships we’re offering in the first place, pay all of our interns, be more selective about the interns we do hire, and limit the term of an internship to no more than four months — things that we’ve already put into place at BuzzFeed. Those of us who are hiring interns should only be hiring people whom we feel we could potentially hire as full-time employees, and we should only hire as many interns as we can have performing meaningful work — work that will help them get hired one day.

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