The ‘American Dream’ is deeply flawed. It’s an unattainable and hegemonic discourse that misleads people into thinking that any individual in this country starts out on the same footing as many others. Simply work hard enough and you will be rewarded. In reality, there are layers of privilege that we’re still too uncomfortable to talk about freely in navigating the professional world.
Growing up, and I’m sure many other friends of similar backgrounds could agree, I was taught to excel in everything I could. That meant starting extracurriculars early, studying extra hours to get top grades, and preparing to study for college admissions tests well before junior year. Academics always came out on top. Success meant getting into a good college to obtain a degree and then landing a good job after graduation. Plenty of POC will tell you the same- and now, this need to excel at extremely high standards has become the norm for younger generations. It has caused our anxiety to rise in this nation, and particularly been the grounds for ‘millennial burnout’.
Upon graduating, I found out that the job market has changed drastically from what we heard throughout high school and college. Not only did it come to disappoint me countless times with shams disguised as ‘great opportunities’, low-paying or non-paying internships, and downright MLM schemes, but it also became more and more frustrating to see my white counterparts attain ‘normal’ career milestones much quicker than I did.
For as much as you work, it’s tough to grasp that you’re just one face in the pool of hundreds of applicants. Our world is struggling to keep up with increasing remote work, digital workflow, and digitized applicant screenings. As more industries become inundated with different types of working, such as remote or open co-working spaces, the more complex these traditional processes become.
As more non-traditional ways of working start to shape our job application processes, hiring practices, and workplace organization, the manners in which we truly promote diversity and inclusion must be reflected as well.
Millennials are losing the safety net that Baby Boomers were able to weave for themselves, and instead are getting weighed down with debt at the face of jumping socioeconomic hurdles. Thus, not being able to start on the same footing as previous generations, we’re struggling to find a good job with full benefits and growth potential.
Getting Your Foot in the Door
Getting your foot in the door is commonly attributed to pursuits like completing a degree program, networking, and gaining experience through internships and work. Of course, half the battle is receiving an education that is merited in our society’s eyes. Yet, degrees are becoming less and less important to broader industries, as to fulfill a position’s responsibilities needs the right, relevant experience. I’ve seen colleagues with politically-aligned degrees step into supply chain positions and others go into data-driven jobs with liberal arts degrees.
Layers of generational help can bring more connections your way, which is most often not the same story for those who are entering the workforce as a first-generation American. I never understood my mother’s words growing up, “You have to meet twice as many people because it’s all about who you know.” Now, I realize that she was speaking about growing a network of different professionals around me, as her generation usually stayed in one company for the entirety of their career. As young first-generation professionals, we need to make the connections that our counterparts’ parents made in their own careers.
It’s nice to get a little help and everyone usually gets some in one way or another. However, when a father calls his old college buddy to pull some strings for that nice summer internship, then that’s good old-fashioned nepotism. Stepping through that door implies that you know someone in the company that alerts you of a job opening that’s not yet posted. The majority of jobs are filled internally or through a current employee’s referral.
Networking is the steep hill that one must venture upwards; it’s an investment of time that doesn’t immediately pay off like a traditional interview does, but instead reaches for mentorship, growth, and connections over a number of years.
The Privilege of Unpaid Internships
Search on any job posting board, from LinkedIn to school-specific boards, and you’ll read multiple descriptions for great opportunities. Professional growth, on-the-job learning experience, fun company culture, and wait- it’s not paid?? Ask any young person on the hunt and they’ll agree that this has been the trend on job boards.
Having come from the non-profit and governmental sector, the students in my college came to expect to intern at least once with an unpaid internship. Unfortunately, programs like ours required completing an internship for college credit in addition to completing a thesis or written project alongside the internship, which was often unpaid. That meant, yes, we had to pay to do our unpaid internships in order to obtain our degree. Slowly, resources and entities like Pay Our Interns have been popping up with hopes of changing these trends of poorly compensated internships.
To even take on an unpaid internship is an unspoken privilege that implies that you are able to sustain yourself with funding for rent, food, and transportation during the internship period because you hope that this position will take you somewhere in the long-run of your career. It might land you a higher spot within the company or lead you to break into an industry. In many industries, like the governmental sectors, non-profits, and entry positions in media, a few years of previous experience is required to gain any semblance of a paid position.
Simply put, unpaid internships plague almost every industry and work in classist ways, as many working-class students have to juggle both academics and working just to pay their tuition. Those who are able to take on unpaid internships have the funds to live uncompensated for a period of time.
Benefits? We’ll Treat You Like Family!
Although unemployment rates are low, it’s important to note exactly what type of jobs our colleagues are taking. There is a rise in contract workers and a decrease in hiring new employees as salaried workers. According to an NPR poll, about 1 in 5 workers are contract workers. Contractors are less costly to hire on than full-time, salaried employees and pose less risk to the company. They are paid by the project and optimistically by the hour, which leads to financial insecurity as they cannot predict their future paychecks. This rings the same for freelancers, as they are ‘hired’ on by the project and paid when the project is completed.
Professionals who move into freelancing to consult their services in project management, accounting, recruiting, and IT, are not entry-level professionals. Instead, they have years of experience to be able to branch out into freelancing for bigger clients and companies. With their experience working for firms or managing departments, these professionals are able to maneuver the instability that comes with freelancing.
What does this mean for the new generation of contractors and freelancers? These types of workers are putting less money down in their savings accounts, and paying rent every month takes precedence over starting a 401k. Most of my colleagues in bigger cities like L.A. and New York City see their paychecks go in and swiftly back out of their accounts for bill payments and higher rent.
In addition to not growing any savings, there is the question of health insurance for these workers. More established companies are able to offer young workers basic health coverage and sometimes even dental coverage, however temporary and contractors are not given any coverage at all.
Unfortunately, company cultures tend to treat contractors differently than salaried employees. More of a symptom of the problem rather than an intentional shift, contractors are often viewed as ‘less-than’. At bigger tech companies like Google, contractors are treated like second-class citizens– so much that they’re not invited to the company’s end-of-the-year holiday party. While the employees make up the in-crowd at a company, the temporary workers and contractors are on the sidelines.
The flexibility of contract jobs is beneficial to only a portion of the workforce who are able to sustain their lifestyles with the unpredictability of wages. Back in December, Fast Co. Ideas tweeted, “Millennials are now the largest demographic in the American workforce, and they’re increasingly deciding to freelance.” which sent Twitter users into an uproar. Why? In addition to the biased source, which came from Upwork- one of the biggest platforms for freelancing, many people disagreed that freelancers are intentionally deciding on this lifestyle.
In fact, Millennial freelancers are pushed to freelance due to lack of jobs willing to hire them for their experience level, unpaid internships, or as a side hustle in addition to their day jobs to pay the bills, you name it. We’ve shown initiative and resilience in an economy and workplace structure that further exploits and undermines our professional experiences.
Race & Gender in the Job Market
Narrowing the wage gap has often been a one-dimensional discussion that doesn’t dive deep into the depth of intersectionality. Navigating the job market as a white male will look vastly different than navigating it as a Latina or a black woman. That means that when we talk about the ‘gender wage gap’, we need to look more than how white women fare to white men. This intersection between race and gender is so layered and culture-specific that one blog post won’t do it any justice, but we can look at some behaviors that come from the biases that affect the workplace.
(data from 2015 Pew Research)
> Fewer women will apply to a posted job because they feel they need to fulfill ALL its requirements, whereas more men apply to jobs when they fulfill about 60% of requirements for the job. This aptly named “confidence gap” subtly sways the majority of applicant pools to be men.
> Women often display leadership in particular ways that vary from their male counterparts. Instead of talking herself up, she shows gratitude towards her team and humbly takes on praise as part of a group. If she displays her leadership in a similar way in which a man does, she’s viewed as bossy or emotion-driven.
> Black women are still facing unjust discrimination for how they wear their hair in professional settings. From choosing to wear one’s natural hair to code-switching for a more Eurocentric beauty standard, black women are perceived with an unconscious bias from companies and employers.
> There is a lack of male allies and female mentors who have climbed the corporate ladders themselves. The women who receive the right mentorship are better equipped to negotiate their salaries and more likely to land higher positions.
> Names on resumes give hiring managers various clues as to a candidates’ class level, race, or ethnicity; these clues can unfairly influence the deciding factor due to presumptions about educational level or work ethic. Candidates with English-sounding names were given more requests for interviews than their black or Asian counterparts, according to many studies including one by the University of Toronto.
Unconscious biases start adding onto other factors of hiring practices, which leads to less diversity seen in entry-level roles all the way up to corporate leadership. Looking at systemic discrimination with an intersectional approach will better equip us to solve issues of diversity and inclusion.
How do we start fixing these layers of behaviors that dictate our workplaces? It’s not easy and will take years of restructuring, but as our generation obtains more positions of power, we can establish fair codes of conduct.
To begin, no applicant will be perfect. (Newsflash, recruiters and hiring managers!) There isn’t anything that a passionate, eager candidate can’t learn on the job. Those who completed a degree program have both the soft and technical skills to excel in the workplace. A great candidate can show enthusiasm in different ways, whether it’s leadership in their communities through volunteer work or learning new skills on their own time. Consistently learning and growing is a facet of work ethic that isn’t rewarded as much as coming into a job with numerous accomplishments.
In addition to fixing the hiring process from the ground up, it’s equally as important to get to the root of these biases. This should lead us to create a more just framework for hiring practices and workplace ethics. Recruiters and HR departments must be educated in unconscious racial biases and discriminatory behavior. Instead of letting workplace morale fall due to an instance that could’ve been avoided, these departments must initiate these conversations early and keep engaging employees in dialogue that builds a safe, inclusive environment.
How should we change things individually? Be an ally for your POC/WOC coworkers when it’s hard to speak up. Dismantling the taboo subjects of conversation might start with asking the tough questions that others are too scared to ask. Share industry advice for those who are seeking mentorship. Grab a coffee with your coworkers and talk honestly about things you want to change in your industry. Simply opening up the dialogue paves the path for concrete change.
Young people are ready to be taken seriously in the workforce. Millennials are already making huge strides in the way they work- from getting the job to growing their networks to gaining the right tools to make a difference. It’s time to start demanding change in our careers and demand empathy and fairness from those in power.