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Older Workers Need To Stop Taking Unpaid Internships

You’re in your 40s. You’ve worked your way at least halfway up the career ladder – you could get to the top if it weren’t for all those pesky Baby Boomers who refuse to retire – and you’re applying your well-honed expertise and advanced degree. Like Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat into the air, you’re gonna make it after all.

Or are you? Forget happy 1970s sitcoms about people working paid jobs, because the hot, new trend for 40somethings is working for free! That’s right kids: unpaid internships are all the rage. The lifestyle you haven’t lived since the Gin Blossoms rocked the charts wants you to get back to where you once belonged. That is, fetching coffee, making the lunch run and hoping someone will offer you a real job that pays in something other than donuts and college credits.

For proof, just scan the job listings. It won’t take long to find a great-sounding job description, click on the link to learn more, and...oh, no –- it’s unpaid and contingent. Damn. Another company that wants an intern, only one preferably with years of relevant work experience and one or two college degrees. For older workers, this ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around. This is life during recession time, according to The L.A. Times:
Although they'd all prefer to be paid, many say they are grateful to at least be in the workplace. Sitting at home, their skills may atrophy, and they'll have a hard time explaining that big gap on their resumes to potential employers.

There is little hard data about the number of unpaid workers toiling in the economy. But anecdotal evidence and a quick search of jobs sites such as Craigslist turn up a number of postings in which accountants, bakers, waitresses and nurses volunteer to work for no pay to get their feet in the door.

So we’ve reached the point where experienced workers would “prefer to be paid.” Nice. You’re right back where you were as a career-confused 21-year-old doing college internships and saying, “this company will hire me for sure!” and then it didn’t happen for some reason. So you got back in your Geo Metro or whatever, cranked the Veruca Salt or The Offspring on the car radio and went…somewhere else. Back to school, maybe? All you had to do back then was pack up a few boxes, squeeze them into your Mom’s old car and hope the landlord of the rundown student quad liked your cleaning job enough to give your deposit back.

But now you’re a 40something Gen Xer with 15 years of professional experience and you’re interning for months on end without any pay or permanency, while secretly kicking yourself for ending up in this position. If only you hadn’t taken out student loans to earn a degree (or two) and then taken all those certifying exams to enter a “stable” career field that you didn’t know was going to collapse in fifteen years, right? Sigh. And you can’t simply say, “I’ll be glad when this internship is over because I can’t wait to get back to campus and see my friends!” because you’re 42 years old with 2.2 kids, a big SUV with high monthly payments, a mortgage, knees that wouldn’t survive a game of ultimate Frisbee, and a stressed-out spouse who is still earning a paycheck and is supportive of your job situation but can’t wait for the day when you can take some pressure off by putting a little back into the pot.

It’s so great our politicians are looking for ways to slash or eliminate Social Security, because we Gen Xers won’t need it. I’m being sarcastic, of course; I’m a Gen Xer, so it comes with the territory. But unless things change, roving bands of angry senior citizens without adequate safety nets might be prowling the streets 40 years from now in their orthopedic Chuck Taylor All-Stars looking for a free wi-fi connection, Metamucil and Adam Ant CDs. Many Gen Xers aren’t so much pretty in pink as they are drowning in red because too many jobs literally don’t pay anymore.

The journalism industry was an early adopter of the unpaid internship and more recently, the work-for-free trend. As the Great Recession set in, I (stupidly) took a few non-paying freelance assignments, working on the promise of “exposure” and “future opportunities” (read: paying work) that I quickly realized would never pan out. In the process, I was losing money on these assignments after I factored in my overhead costs (phone, babysitting). I also started losing my self-respect, because I was letting others take advantage of me. So I put my foot down and told myself never, ever again. I will be paid for what I do for a living. I’m not working as much right now, but at least I get paid for it when I do. I want to be a Shaun Jackson.

So I can understand the desperation that underlies the choice to take an unpaid internship; it's bad out there, and everyone is running on fear. When your livelihood is threatened or taken away, you grasp at what you can, try something different, and hope for the best. Optimism is the most wonderful of human traits, but older workers who take unpaid internships need to face reality and admit to themselves that these unpaid “opportunities” won’t propel them into paying gigs. If you’ve been working unpaid for a whole year, that’s a sign. The reason is simple: If you don’t see your skill set as worthy of payment, how can you expect anyone else to? Why would an employer buy the milk when it can get the whole cow for free?

And what is this nonsense about accepting long-term, unpaid internships as a means of glossing over resume gaps? Working for a company without pay for a few years should raise more red flags to a potential employer than a resume gap. It gives off a whiff of desperation and reveals an inability or unwillingness to stand up for oneself. As a 40-year-old professional, you have 10 to 20 years of career experience, so stop being "grateful to at least be in the workplace" and start giving yourself credit for your past accomplishments. Renew your faith in your marketable skills, and why you deserve to get paid for them. Don't live on anyone’s promises of a paid position "when one opens up" because promises can ring hollow and someday might never come. You’re far better off working as a temp, spending time at the local library, taking a community college class, watching You Tube training videos and joining a professional group than doing an unpaid internship at age 40. As the old saying goes, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, can’t get fooled again. Or something like that.

I hope the trend toward long-term, unpaid internships for older workers is the nadir of the present economy. I really do, because we need to start rebuilding the self-confidence and sense of self-worth that have been completely lost in the Great Recession. Like him or loathe him, Dr. Phil is right when he says that we teach others how to treat us. So repeat after me, fellow Gen Xers (and Baby Boomers, since you’re in on this trend, too):

No, I will not work as an unpaid intern in my 30s/40s/50s, unless I’m making a huge career change and it makes sense. Otherwise, I’ve been there, done that, got the t-shirt a long time ago. I’m a professional who deserves a real job.

No, I will not work for months or years as an unpaid intern in hopes that this company might, just might, decide to hire me “someday.” Unless there’s a paying offer on the table, I’d rather sit at home looking for real jobs while watering my plants.

No, I’m not going to play your game, as Jon Stewart once told Tucker Carlson. And we all know what happened to “Crossfire” after he said that.

Besides, a little bit of self-respect is rather priceless, isn’t it?


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