The feature “Read This With That” pairs old and new, complementary pieces from the Internet like so much fine cheese and wine. In today’s installment: “In The Name of Love” and “Why is Generation Y So Unhappy?” (Previous installment: On Mortality with Ariel Levy and Aleksandar Hemon.)
“I don’t want to alarm you,” whispers the New York Times Style Section, “but the interns are going gray.” Apparently, the youngs—roughly defined as anyone who has ever been asked to explain Twitter—feel so entitled to fulfilling careers that they have abandoned the idea that they should be compensated for their labor. That expression, beloved of olds like the Princeton Mom, “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” does not apply just to sex with dudes anymore.
While feeling trapped inside what she calls a “never-ending intern life,” Lea satisfies her creative impulses by editing a food and drinks column at a lifestyle blog, selling coral fan necklaces on Etsy, and starting a charity to teach children about “responsible” street art. She wonders if she should surrender to a fourth internship or settle for an office job outside her chosen field. “I’m 26 right now,” she said. “I know that everyone has their own pace, but I don’t really feel like a real adult right now.”
If Lea is getting her creative needs met by doing all that Portlandia stuff on the side, why does she need a creative job too? You might want the fantastic wife and the sexy mistress, but at what point do you acknowledge that expecting both might be unrealistic?
The Times, like the very proper hostess of a dinner party, does not mention the class privilege that undergirds the intern system, but it is the white-shoe elephant in the room. Plenty of Forever 21s seem to have parents with unlimited resources and/or patience, possibly because they believe, as their children do, that we deserve the best. The resulting problems are at the heart of Jacobin Magazine article “In the Name of Love” and Wait But Why’s explanation on the Huffington Post’s of “Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy.”
“In the Name of Love” is brutally honest about what it means to tell affluent millennials that their jobs should reflect their passions. It means that they value themselves too highly and others, people not like them, not at all.
“Do what you love” disguises the fact that being able to choose a career primarily for personal reward is an unmerited privilege, a sign of that person’s socioeconomic class. Even if a self-employed graphic designer had parents who could pay for art school and cosign a lease for a slick Brooklyn apartment, she can self-righteously bestow DWYL as career advice to those covetous of her success. If we believe that working as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur or a museum publicist or a think-tank acolyte is essential to being true to ourselves — in fact, to loving ourselves — what do we believe about the inner lives and hopes of those who clean hotel rooms and stock shelves at big-box stores? The answer is: nothing.
Wait But Why uses graphs, pictures, and dollops to condescension to explain that, though our grandparents and then our parents worked hard at their jobs, we expect more than that from life. The piece might be less controversial if it didn’t talk down so much, and if it didn’t blithely throw around a very loaded and offensive term for a disempowered ethnic group. But it makes the point that we expect personally and emotionally fulfilling careers—and we want them stat:
Baby Boomers all around the country and world told their Gen Y kids that they could be whatever they wanted to be, instilling the special protagonist identity deep within their psyches.
This left GYPSYs feeling tremendously hopeful about their careers, to the point where their parents’ goals of a green lawn of secure prosperity didn’t really do it for them. A GYPSY-worthy lawn has flowers. … The GYPSY needs a lot more from a career than a nice green lawn of prosperity and security. The fact is, a green lawn isn’t quite exceptional or unique enough for a GYPSY. Where the Baby Boomers wanted to live The American Dream, GYPSYs want to live Their Own Personal Dream.
That’s a lot to ask from a 9-to-5. The result? Callousness (Jacobin), discontent (the Huffington Post), and people who intern until perimenopause.
Of course, not all millennials are GYPSY Unicorn Interns. Some not only make money, they send it home to help their parents. Others are Occupying Wall Street, or manning the salad bars that feed their more fortunate contemporaries, or going back to school to learn a trade. (Like fracking!)
The picture of our generation overall, though, is bleak: we feel entitled to our dream job, which will pay us well to do something we love. That is why, as Wait But Why explains, “‘follow your passion’ is a catchphrase that has only gotten going in the last 20 years. … The same Ngram viewer shows that the phrase “a secure career” has gone out of style, just as the phrase “a fulfilling career” has gotten hot.”
It is also why job hopping is the new normal: as Forbes reports, “Ninety-one percent of Millennials (born between 1977-1997) expect to stay in a job for less than three years.” When we find reality dissatisfying, like Zoe Barnes in “House of Cards,” we move on. But what does that mean for our long-term prospects? Are we setting ourselves up for failure after failure because we won’t settle for anything other than an illusory idea of success?
Want something different, both articles advise. How? Start, Jacobin says, by considering the issue from a feminist point of view.
It should be no surprise that unpaid interns abound in fields that are highly socially desirable, including fashion, media, and the arts. These industries have long been accustomed to masses of employees willing to work for social currency instead of actual wages, all in the name of love. Excluded from these opportunities, of course, is the overwhelming majority of the population: those who need to work for wages. This exclusion not only calcifies economic and professional immobility, but insulates these industries from the full diversity of voices society has to offer.
And it’s no coincidence that the industries that rely heavily on interns — fashion, media, and the arts — just happen to be the feminized ones, as Madeleine Schwartz wrote in Dissent. Yet another damaging consequence of DWYL is how ruthlessly it works to extract female labor for little or no compensation.
Women comprise the majority of the low-wage or unpaid workforce; as care workers, adjunct faculty, and unpaid interns, they outnumber men. What unites all of this work, whether performed by GEDs or PhDs, is the belief that wages shouldn’t be the primary motivation for doing it. Women are supposed to do work because they are natural nurturers and are eager to please; after all they’ve been doing uncompensated childcare, elder care, and housework since time immemorial. And talking money is unladylike anyway.
What Would Maddow Do?
Ditch the Vogue internship. Someone who will not pay you does not value you and is not worth working for.
Find satisfaction in working for work’s sake. It’s possible! Even rewarding. Wait But Why promises, “You can become special by working really hard for a long time.”
Do what you love outside of the office and let that bring you psychic fulfillment. Jacobin explains, “if we acknowledged all of our work as work, we could set appropriate limits for it, demanding fair compensation and humane schedules that allow for family and leisure time.” (Note: It will help if your standards for a relationship aren’t also impossibly high.)
In “Mad Men,” Megan’s mother tells her, “Not every little girl gets to do what they want; the world can’t support that many ballerinas.” Many of our parents are no longer than practical. But, according to these articles, our children will be better served if we are.
Ester Bloom, a known heroine addict, lives, reads, and writes in Brooklyn. Follow her @shorterstory.