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In the dismaying-but-not-surprising category of news stories recently, this one in the July 2 New York Times got my attention. It describes how the Obama administration is killing off the summer internship programs, many of them unpaid, that are so popular with high school seniors and college students. Sample quotes:

In April, the Obama administration issued a fact sheet listing six criteria aimed at preventing employers from violating the Fair Labor Standards Act with their unpaid internship programs … The guidelines, from the Labor Department, have left employers scrambling to bulletproof their internship programs … Some employers … have converted to paid internships but in the process have cut back on the number of posts they can offer. Others have abandoned their programs altogether.

One reason this got my attention is that it came as the second instalment of a double whammy, showing up in my inbox just as I’d got through reading the May 2010 Backgrounder from the Center for Immigration Studies, title: “A Drought of Summer Jobs: Immigration and the Long-Term Decline in Employment Among U.S.-Born Teenagers.” Sample quotes from them:

In 1994, nearly two-thirds of U.S.-born teenagers were in the summer labor force; by 2007 it was less than half … Between 1994 and 2007, in occupations where teenage employment declined the most, immigrants made significant job gains …

The CIS report, by the way, easily scotches the idea of a direct connection between the two phenomena — the idea that summer internships have been drying up the pool of youngsters available for work of a more traditional kind:

According to Princeton Review’s Internship Bible, there are only about 100,000 internships (paid and unpaid) in the country. The increase in U.S.-born teenagers not in the labor force was 3.4 million between 1994 and 2007.

The second reason the administration’s internship-killing policies got my attention is that my own princess, aged 17½, has just begun her first ever internship, as a trading-floor clerk at a Wall Street firm. Since she still has a year of high school to go, it’s a real plum of an opportunity, and we are everlastingly obliged to the firm that made the offer. It is also Ms. Derbyshire’s first real job of any kind, other than dog-walking gigs. Onward and upward, Nellie.

According to that New York Times report, though, the summer internship may become an endangered species; according to the CIS report, lower-level summer jobs already have, thanks to reckless immigration policies.

What seems to be going on here is a war against the notion that any American citizen should do any kind of non-academic work before the age of 25 — before, that is, a college degree and a couple of years of law school have been completed.

If that is indeed the mentality we are drifting into, it is based not on the real America, but on a fantasy-America that exists only in the imaginations of our cognitive elites. I hope nobody in Georgetown or the Upper East Side will fall off their chairs in shock if I point out (borrowing from the CIS report) that: “Of U.S.-born 20-year-olds in 2008, 42 percent had no additional schooling after high school.”

If you force facts like that on the attention of the overclass, their response is that so long as a single 18-year-old anywhere is not going on from high school to college, then our schools are failing!

There’s nothing abstract about that “overclass,” either: I can name names.

  • U.S. President Barack Obama: “All students should graduate from high school prepared for college and a career — no matter who you are or where you come from.”
  • Education Secretary Arne Duncan: “By 2020 all students will graduate ready to succeed in college and the workplace.” (Note, by the way, that Duncan’s conjunction there, like the president’s, is an “and,” not an “or.”)
  • Amy Wilkins of The Education Trust: “We think that getting all kids college-ready is absolutely the right aspiration. It’s the right goal and it’s absolutely achievable.”
  • The Superintendent of public schools in Prince George’s County, Maryland: “We believe that every kid can learn at a high level and that college is for every child.”

A person acquainted with the real world would recognize this for what it is: the romantic piffle of fools living in money-padded cocoons. There, however, you see the circularity of the issue. The overclass types who extrude this gibberish are not much acquainted with the real world; and one reason for this is, they have never done low-paid low-skill work. They may have done higher-status internships for little or no pay, but it seems the administration now wants to shut youngsters off from even that much acquaintance with the world of work.

Internships are at least still sought after. As the more traditional, lower-status types of summer work have become foreign-ized, American youngsters have, perhaps understandably, become increasingly alienated from them.

Most young adults of the American upper-middle classes are already lost in this fantasy of a world without drudge work.

I have noticed that if, among thirty-something colleagues, I mention one of my own school or college summer jobs — factory or construction work, dishwashing, retail sales, bartending — my colleagues will look amused, and a bit baffled. How come a guy as well-educated as Derb was shoveling concrete? Boy, he’s a real eccentric! No I’m not. Those experiences were perfectly normal for a person of my generation. They’re just not normal any more, not for children of the American middle- and upper-classes.

Steve Sailer has noticed the same thing. From his review of the movie Adventureland:

Writer-director Greg Mottola … explains the origin of his quasi-autobiographical film with an ingenuous snobbishness that would have annoyed and amused John Steinbeck. “I was talking with a bunch of writer friends, and I was telling them these embarrassing stories about a summer in the ’80s that I spent as a carnie working at an amusement park … It was the worst job I’ve ever had … I should have had a good job — I should have been a tutor or gone to Manhattan and been an intern at a magazine or something respectable — but no, I was working for minimum wage, handing out stuffed animals to drunk people.”

Please note that Mottola isn’t, personally, a jerk. Judging from Adventureland he’s an insightful yet gentle observer. That’s just the way people think nowadays.

Yes it is. The word that stands out there is “embarrassing.” For a guy like Mottola (who, I note, was born in 1964 to a non-rich family, so that my “thirtysomething” may even be understating the case), it’s embarrassing to admit having done low-level work.

We’re embarrassed when we admit to something shameful. To 21st-century Americans, low-level work is shameful.


Well, I don’t suppose anybody ever did drudge work if better options were available. Until recently, though, a great many people reconciled themselves to it: as a means to support a family, as a pathway to as much independence as their abilities would permit, and even as something in which satisfactions might be found. Remember Luke in The Thorn Birds boasting of his prowess as a sheep-shearer and sugarcane-cutter.

Nor was physical labor always thought shameful. In the older American ideal, which is now as dead as the one-room schoolhouse, physical labor was held to have a dignity to it. Even elites believed their youngsters would benefit from a taste of it. Calvin Coolidge put his 15-year-old son to work in the tobacco fields of Hatfield, Massachusetts as a vacation job.

(When the lad happened to mention who he was, one of his co-workers said: “Gee, if the president was my father, I wouldn’t be working here.” Cal Jr.: “You would, if your father were my father.” For a comparison with the “conservative” sensibility of our own time, recall Karl Rove’s remark that: “I don’t want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes.” Good heavens, Karl, of course you don’t: the poor lad might break a fingernail.)

Under pressure from employer lobbies, eagerly taking advantage of the notion put about by liberals that opposition of any sort to immigration of any sort is tantamount to membership of the Klan, foreigners have been brought in under the H-2B, J, and Q-1 guest-worker visas, or just allowed in illegally, to do the jobs American teenagers once did. The foreigners are older (“overwhelmingly adults over age 20” says the CIS report), they work for less, and the illegal ones are docile because they fear deportation. From an employer’s point of view, what’s not to like?

From a patriot’s point of view, there’s a lot not to like. As the CIS report says: “A society in which some types of jobs are seen as beneath the station of Americans may not be a very attractive society.” Patriotism, though, in a nation whose President stands by nodding approval as a foreign politician insults our laws, is just as eccentric as the willingness of a college student to get calluses on his hands.

Even when traditional summer occupations began to dry up, there was still, for lucky or well-placed youngsters, the hope of an internship. It wasn’t necessarily much of a hope, certainly not for internships at the most prized firms. The New York Times report tells us that: “At ESPN, Howard Hamilton, a vice president of human resources, said that 10,000 people applied this summer for 90 paid internship spots.” Even unpaid internships are much sought-after. Unpaid? People will pay to do them. One internship at Vogue magazine went for \$42,500 recently — surely a record for a “negative salary” (though admittedly the sale was made at a charity auction).

Now the over-educated elite labor-virgins who run our lives for us are seeking to stamp out even those few, mild opportunities for pre-postgraduate work experience. Who do they think is going to do all the drudge work, either physical or clerical? Oh, right.

(Republished from National Review by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Economics 
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