Salary and Benefits

March 18, 2013

For 20-somethings, ambition comes at a price

For 20-somethings, ambition comes at a price

Casey McIntyre, a book publicist who relies on "large coffees" for her long days, is shown at her office in New York. For many young professionals, unpaid internships, low-paying positions, long hours and being "on call" are now routine. (Deidre Schoo / The New York Times)

Every generation has its own anthem of making the journey from youthful naivete to adult reality, whether it's Neil Young's "Old Man," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or most recently, perhaps, the Taylor Swift song "22."

''Tonight's the night when we forget about the deadlines," it goes. "It feels like one of those nights, we won't be sleeping."

If only it were as easy for Swift's less-affluent contemporaries to blow off their deadlines as it is for the singer-songwriter (now a slightly more seasoned 23). Sleepless nights are more likely because they are on the clock, not at the club.

''If I'm not at the office, I'm always on my BlackBerry," says Casey McIntyre, 28, a book publicist in New York. "I never feel like I'm totally checked out of work."

McIntyre is just one 20-something -- a population historically exploitable as cheap labor -- learning that long hours and low pay go hand in hand in the creative class. The recession has been no friend to entry-level positions, where hundreds of applicants vie for unpaid internships at which they are expected to be on call with iPhone in hand, tweeting for and representing their company at all hours.

''We need to hire a 22-22-22," one new-media manager was overheard saying recently, meaning a 22-year-old willing to work 22-hour days for $22,000 a year. Perhaps the middle figure is an exaggeration, but its bookends certainly aren't. According to a 2011 Pew report, the median net worth for householders under 35 dropped by 68 percent from 1984 to 2009, to $3,662. Lest you think that's a mere side effect of the economic downturn, for those over 65, it rose 42 percent to $170,494 (largely because of an overall gain in property values). Hence 1.2 million more 25-to-34-year-olds lived with their parents in 2011 than did four years earlier.

Demanding job descriptions

A recent posting by Dalkey Archive Press, an avant-garde publisher in Champaign, Ill., for unpaid interns in its London office encapsulated the outlandish demands on young workers. The stern catalog of grounds for "immediate dismissal" included "coming in late or leaving early without prior permission," ''being unavailable at night or on the weekends" and "failing to respond to emails in a timely way." And "The Steve Wilkos Show" on NBCUniversal recently advertised on Craigslist for a freelance booking production assistant who would work "65+ hours per week." (The listing was later removed after drawing outraged comments when it was linked on jimromenesko.com).

''The notion of the traditional entry-level job is disappearing," says Ross Perlin, 29, the author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy." Internships have replaced them, he said, "but also fellowships and nebulous titles that sound prestigious and pay a stipend, which means you're only coming out with $15,000 a year."

Once a short-term commitment at most, internships have become an obligatory rite of passage that often drags on for years.

"Particularly in some rock-star professions -- film and TV and publishing and media -- companies are pushing the envelope to see how much they can get out of young people for how low a stipend or salary," Perlin says. "And people are desperate enough to break in to do it."

That's what Katherine Myers, 27, found when she graduated from college in 2008. After months of searching, she landed a position as a development coordinator at a cable channel in New York.

"I was willing to put up with anything," she says. "I never took a lunch, I came in early, I worked late."

Still, her experience was more pleasant than that of two of her friends who successively worked for a major film producer.

"Last year, we threw a surprise birthday party for one, and he had to miss it because his boss called him in to come to a screening," she says. "For a year we never saw him. He'd get up at 5, be there till 1 a.m., fall asleep at work."

The other friend left for law school after four months.

"I think she thought it made no sense," Myers says. "You have to have a feeling that you're doing something good for the world, and that's hard to come up with in some jobs. If you're a doctor or lawyer, or even in finance, you can justify it. But if you're in fashion, it's like, 'Oh, boy, who cares?'"

But Myers, now in a higher-ranking position at the website CollegeHumor, is committed to her field, as is Cathy Pitoun, 25. Two years ago, as a production assistant at a Culver City, Calif., company that cuts movie trailers, Pitoun earned $10 an hour with no benefits (though an overtime bonus), with rotating weekend work. After six months she was promoted to a position "where one dropped ball could get you fired," she notes, and a raise to $12 an hour with benefits. She estimated that she worked at least 60 hours a week.

''There were days where I stayed until 4 a.m. just to send out one TV spot to one client in Japan and then had to come in four hours later for a whole new day," Pitoun says, "and days where I had to be at work at 5 a.m. to do voice-over sessions with actors in Europe to make up for the time change and still stay until 9 at night."

Her investment, like Myers', paid off: She's now the assistant to the chief executive, though she knows that the path to producing, her long-term goal, "will get worse before it gets better," she says.

Always connected
Pitoun's job surely would have been less demanding in the pre-Internet and smartphone age. If she ever turned off her phone for a few hours, her inbox would be flooded with emails or missed calls and texts.

''I had to be reachable 100 percent of the time on an on-call weekend," she says, "so I would usually use those weekends to do chores around my apartment and wait for the phone to ring."

The assignment could be as small as coming in to send one email and as onerous as digitizing footage for 15 hours.

McIntyre, the book publicist, estimated that she receives 300 to 400 emails a day and tries to answer at least 80 percent. How does she summon the energy for this incessant typing, not to mention 16-hour days traveling with authors on tour?

"I have coffee before I leave the house, there's a Dunkin' Donuts conveniently in the subway station when I get off, and I get another coffee during the day," she says. "And they're large coffees."

Complicating matters is the fact that it is not yet known how to quantify or define digital work. Forget email.

''Is a tweet labor? Is a Facebook post labor?" Perlin, the author, asks.

No boundaries

Ironically, millennials, to whom the burden of monitoring late-night social media or email frequently falls, may be underestimating the value of such work. Their habits of consuming culture free of charge on the Internet, he suggested, have "carried over into the world of work, so they're more willing to accept barter or in-kind payment," such as free lunches. And their primary payment is building "cultural capital" as opposed to "capital capital."

In these "rock star" professions, too, notably in the business-casual Silicon Valley, many companies "have tried to break down the homogenizing nightmare of the 1950s," Perlin says, replacing cubicles with foosball tables and other dorm-room accouterments to entice employees to stay late and bond with colleagues.

''But we've got something more sinister now," he says. "People are working much more and are convinced to invest themselves body and soul. It tries to make you lose your sense of your workplace versus home -- who are your co-workers and who are your friends?"

Children of helicopter parents who have been overscheduled since nursery school might find it especially hard to set professional limits. As part of the generation "that's been taught to engage in labors of love," Perlin says, "it's led us into these fields, and secondly, it's encouraged us to knock down that boundary between life and work in the traditional artist mode."

''You can't get a job by saying, 'I just want a job,'" he says. "Your heart has to be supposedly in it, and you have to demonstrate that by staying as late as you're supposed to stay or responding to emails at 11 p.m."

This commitment is what Lucy Schiller, 24, demonstrated over two years in Denver and San Francisco, yet nothing panned out. Schiller falls into Perlin's category of a "serial intern." While working the 4:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. shift four days a week for minimum wage at a cafe (where her manager would take half her tips in front of her), she interned, usually for no pay, at five artistic and cultural institutions as she juggled side projects.

They were never lucrative; at one website "there was the possibility of being paid $3 per article, but that never materialized," she says. Her 70 hours of work a week netted her about $500.

Perlin points out that "some studies show that people in their 20s work eight or nine jobs in that period, which economists see as a good thing, but they aren't looking at the stress and personal toll it takes."

Myers' parents, too, "appreciate and encourage me, but they're baffled by" her career in entertainment, she says.

''They don't think that I'm on a track," she says. "They think there's no point unless you're making money.

''It's a legit question," she continues. "I'm going to turn 30 in the next few years, and it's hard to be young and feel like the gap is so big between my station in this industry and others who are doing so well in it. To get up every morning, I have to think that I'll be one of those people. But I happen to be a delusionally positive person."


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