Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Highs and Lows of Unpaid Jobs: An Interning Manifesta

Working at National Geographic Traveler this month technically marks my fourth time being an intern. (If I were honest, though, I'd have to say that the time I briefly interned for wonderful theater company Strange Tree -- last January Term, kind of-- shouldn't really count. Because I don't have a driver's license, I ended up not being particularly helpful to them, much as we all wished I could have been. They are incredible people who do incredible work, but that was the only time I felt, as an intern, that I wasn't really altogether as helpful as I should have been.)

The two other times I've been an intern have also been with theater companies, Steppenwolf and The Neo-Futurists in my hometown. National Geographic is obviously different from that, because the magazine world is absolutely nothing like the theater world. I'm grateful for the breath of fresh air, to be frank, and the opportunity to learn a new world.

There are some things these internships have in common, though. For one, they're unpaid-- the labor unionist in me rebels!-- but because they're all nonprofits, I've always swallowed my socialist politics on that one and mostly been grateful that my family can support me while I take on these weeks and months of working for free. Not everyone is so lucky. In fact, most people aren't. It's a privileged position to be able to work for free, and schools like Oberlin should do a better job of monetarily supporting the students who aren't able to do it on their own.

To be fair, working for free is what apprenticing has always been about. You give your time and work hard in exchange for access to people and trade knowledge. It's almost a fair system, if the contemporary world wasn't so dependent on the exchange of money. And in days of old, even thirteen-year-old blacksmith's assistants would get room and board, right?

I am not complaining. Like I said, I feel pretty lucky that I'm able to do this, to appease my curiosity and work hard for something I can feel proud about. Travel journalism is something I can feel proud about. Every day, I get to work in a building with banners outside proclaiming that National Geographic Society is "Your window to the world." I thought about this a lot this morning as I bounded up the stairs, a little later than I should have been due to the snow DC's just had: I get to work at your window to the world? Who's the "you" in that statement? Washington? America? The world? The world's window to the world? It gets confusing at that point.

But anyway, another thing that hung me up about it was that WINDOWS happen to be the thing I miss most when I'm interning. The way my particular cubicle and computer are arranged, I can't see a sliver of daylight. If I push back my chair about a foot from the keyboard, I can sometimes peek into a neighbor's office to look outside her window longingly-- but there's a big brick building (with the lettering "Sumner School" across its top) blocking most of the sunshine. At first, I'd liked that building. Today, day eight of working here, I just miss seeing the sky.

And when I worked at Steppenwolf last summer-- a job I loved, make no mistake-- it was a similar situation. I worked 9-5 in a cubicle, crunched on either side by two others who shared the same desk. Thank god we became friends. Only in August, after three months of interning, did I realize I'd missed the summer.

The adults reading this will probably nod knowingly or shake their heads with jaded recognition. "Yes," you're saying to yourselves, "That's what being an adult is about." Working in an office and sacrificing the seasons. "You do it to provide for yourself and your family."

Well, being an unpaid intern doesn't provide for me or my family, at least not directly. In fact, it detracts from my family's... provisions. "Well," some people will tell you, "The whole point is that you make connections now for a job later." Sure. But there's a nice girl working downstairs in the NatGeo Store who said she had eight internships before graduating college, a few after, and then couldn't find a job. She works here and at Starbucks. And that's the story I hear most often.

One thing us Gen Yers are always accused of, though, is entitlement. How dare I, goes the argument, presume that I deserve anything at all, let alone a job with a salary or, heaven forbid, health care benefits?

The answer is complicated. Growing up as perhaps the first global generation (my friends were making YouTube videos seen by viewers in Hong Kong when we were fifteen, and most of us, regardless of class, have gotten abroad at one time or another), the people I know are pretty aware of the crises facing developing countries and disasters happening with alarming regularity all over the world today. There is that knowledge, but with it comes resignation, an early strain of the lethal virus of empathetic exhaustion. We're told to care about so many things and given so few outlets to do anything about them (that are easy or widely presented, at least), that many people of all ages, but most critically my own, simply give up.

We retreat into pop culture and have collectively developed a similar sense of post-post-modern, ironic humor. Can you blame us? With so little uniting us on an international level, let alone a national one, we're grateful and excited that, meeting another twentysomething in an elevator, we might have "Doctor Who" or Neutral Milk Hotel in common. "Have you seen the latest Andy Samberg sketch?" we ask each other urgently, as if it's of vital importance to both our idea of self and of community. In a very sad but true way, it is.

But the question was one of entitlement. I was born in 1989. People around my age spent some pretty formative years in an America with a surplus, when the biggest national problem seemed to us whether Bill Clinton had cheated on his wife. I hasten to say we were the last generation pretty universally inculcated with the idea that our country was essentially good and essentially the most powerful one on earth. These things, while responsible for unpleasantness like imperialism, arrogance, and ignorance, also provide citizens with a heady sense of security and well-being.

So 2001 happens. Adults around the country are shocked. Kids around the country are confused. And us-- preteens, teenagers-- are young enough to reconfigure our worldview to include this event, not implicitly reject it as "something that doesn't happen." Guess what? It happened. Our conception of the universe was still malleable enough to account for it, so you have a generation that no longer plans for permanence. (Could this be why so many more people today get tattoos than a decade ago? It seems trivial but related to me.)

Just a few years later, the world economy collapses. We aren't shocked, we aren't panicked. Unlike our elders, who watch as their jobs disappear and their pensions dry up, we never expected those things, not really. We were told ten years ago that the world was ending with Y2k, and secretly hoped it would. It's a year until 2012 now, another beacon of hope for the world to end, and people my age are deliriously delighted with the prospect. The world ending means we can stop feeling guilty about our impotence and physically disappear, like we've always subconsciously feared and desired.

Which brings us back to internships. I have loved all my internships, and you have to, on a daily basis, appreciate them for what they are-- because what they are not is an investment. Common wisdom says the opposite, but any unemployed graduate can tell you the reality.

But see, that comes easily to me. Taking things one day at a time, planning for a month here, three months there. Nothing lasts-- nothing ever did, but today things are less stable than ever, and the process has sped up considerably. I can't even get an iPod for Christmas before the next one is already hitting the tech geek blogs.

It's not a problem, this state of evanescence, because not only is it the ultimate human condition, it's well-suited to the brains of teens and twentysomethings. The parts of our minds that plan for the long-term aren't even fully developed yet, according to my neuroscience professors. If you see a pierced hipster on the side of the road, looking altogether pretty calm about being jobless, that's probably part of it.

But what happens to us as we age? By the time people my age hit their thirties, social security might be history. By the time we recognize why something like socialized healthcare might be a pretty great idea, the time for activism might have passed us by.

It's important that people who are in their teens and twenties now try to wrap their heads around that reality. Do I think we will? Nah. Not on the whole. But if just a few of us do, and if just a few of us are willing to put that time and energy into leaving the world a better place than how we found it (I can hear laughing at the sprawling ambition of such a hope), that might be enough. At least, thinking at all about these things would be a start.

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