Millenials Sing the New Internship Blues

September 18, 2013 Barbara Moses, Ph.D

The 29 year old woman I recently counselled would seem to represent a perfect package to launch a career as a communications professional. Along with undergraduate and master’s degrees from prestigious Canadian universities and two additional diplomas, she is also funny, poised, and with a history of entrepreneurship to boot.

Yet rather than landing in an entry level professional job with a top firm, she is now working in her third unpaid internship. And although she carries the title of “co-ordinator,” her work consists largely of fetching coffee, posting content on the web, and fixing her boss’s iPod.

Most of us are all too familiar with this story: In a highly competitive market, even the strongest of young job seekers can’t make headway with employers who want workers with demonstrated experience.  So they turn to internships, with the promise of getting a foot in the door.

But rather than getting portfolio-building skills, these educated but debt-ridden 20-somethings are forced to become cheap or free labour, doing work which adds nothing to their resume.

Organizations ultimately pay a price when future hires feel soured by exploitation. Young workers pay an even higher price- their future mortgaged by employers only too happy to have free labour without providing much development  in return.

And this is the subtle, but even more devastating part of the story – a young person’s loss of feelings of competence and belief in their future: Not only do these young people fail to get the skills they need to build a professional portfolio, but worse, their sense of self is pummeled.

The twenties is a critical developmental period. In the last few decades it has been the time during which young people have learned how to become adults while still being allowed some forbearance.  It should be a chapter in life that allows them some modest screw-ups while they figure out what they want to do, test themselves, and feel the joys and challenges of starting to become self-sufficient.

But these days, 20-somethings are becoming anything but self-sufficient, living at home and scrounging off parents. And they are deprived of delicious self-esteem enhancing feelings – Yes, I found this apartment, yes, I can live on a budget, yes, I can furnish my apartment cheaply, yes, I can live on my income. Rather than this period being about grooming to become an adult, it has become about being infantilized.

And being stressed.  According to the recent annual “Stress in America” survey  conducted by the American Psychological Association, members of  the millennial generation feel more stressed than older generations and are more likely to say they don’t think they are managing their stress well. The top reported stressors: work, money, and job instability.

The stress and infantilizing play out in the workplace. Many young workers offered internships are promised “career enhancing real- world professional skills” only to be treated like third class citizens. Being assigned the most menial tasks, along with the freight of living at home, further guts their confidence. More egregious, as one young intern I know recently said, “If you don’t smile when asked to get coffee, and act  as if you are the luckiest person alive to be doing this, they pull the, ‘Your generation is sooo entitled thing on us.’”

The result: Instead of navigating their way to adulthood, they look to bosses for approbation and start to feel grateful for any bone tossed their way.

Employers are often complicit in fostering feelings of incompetence and lack of readiness to take on something bigger. One former intern, who had just lost her job, said that her boss never let her forget that she didn’t “know anything” and treated her “with a kind of noblesse oblige.” She had to beg to be included in the most minor meeting, and when he finally agreed, he acted like he was being extremely generous.

And when she asked for guidance, he was always “too busy,” or implied she was needy. Nonetheless, “all of the interns competed for who is the biggest sycophant,” she said.

Most disturbing – when I suggested to this talented woman that maybe this time around she should look for a proper job, she said, “But I don’t have the skills. I am just an intern.”

Organizations may be able to kick the tires before they buy and in the process, get bargain- priced labour. To make themselves feel better, they may tell themselves they are giving a young person a leg up.  But unless hiring managers are actually providing meaningful work experiences, this isn’t a recipe for grooming the people who will be paying our pensions.

Employers should take a page from one manager I know. When he hires an intern, he shows them what their resume will look like when their internship is completed.

Of course, not all internships are a formula for attacks on self-esteem and soul-sucking drudgery. Unlike many 20-somethings who don’t have any idea about their desired career, one young woman I know was fortunate in that she knew exactly what her dream job was – to run an art gallery. She made a list of the skills she needed to develop, and researched gallerists who would be able to provide those skills.

She got the trade she wanted with a top gallery owner who also enjoyed mentoring: The intern offered inexpensive labour and in return received the learning experiences she needed. This is how it should be.

She recently opened her own gallery.


Advice for under employed and unemployed young people


  • If you are looking for an internship, be clear about your expectations. Ask what you will learn on the job, and how. For example, find out whether you will be able to attend important meetings and/or shadow other workers.
  • If you are not treated respectfully, push back. Don’t allow others to define your self-worth. Document your accomplishments. If you get really down, remind yourself about why you are doing this work and what you hope to get out of it.
  • Don’t compare yourself against friends with professional degrees who are now making proper salaries. Their income is irrelevant. What is important is why you are doing this and what you hope to achieve.
  • Act like you are a professional. Dress for the role.
  • Every job, no matter how menial, has the potential to be a source of learning. Consider what aspects of the job you like, and which you don’t. Use this as fodder to narrow your search for future work.
  • Weigh the pros and cons of sucking it up if you are in a job you hate. Consider whether the skills you are acquiring are worth the trade-off in self-esteem.
  • Be wary of the promise of a foot in the door. Sometimes it is a genuine opportunity, but often it is an entrance to a dead-end.
  • Don’t obsess about the income. What matters at this career stage is whether the work is indeed a stepping stone. Consider the internship as part of a graduate education.

For further reading:

Parental Career Advice – Less is More by Barbara Moses

Nine Tips for Young Job Hunters by Barbara Moses

Stress by Generation (American Psychological Association)


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