Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fashionista Reality Check

Monday's CBS News had a segment about how, in this economy, it is challenging for recent college grads to find full-time employment at a level appropriate for their degree.  Many are living with their parents, working part-time, unemployed, or working in jobs that don't require a college degree.  I get that.  Times are tough, and it's really hard to land that first job out of college.

My quibble is with who they chose to interview for this story, a 23-year-old English major who is living at home with her parents while trying to get a full-time job in the fashion industry.  She is working as a part-time intern for Fashionista and working part-time at another website.  Despite her college degree, she makes $300 a week. 

The Fashionista website has a recent article about unpaid interns in the fashion industry which concludes with this sentence: "Still, these interns put in 80-hour weeks for free. With pleasure."  Aw, bless their hearts!

The problem is not that the fashion industry is not hiring due to the poor economy.  The fashion industry is structured around unpaid intern labor and an extremely high bar for entry.  Unlike, say, human resources.  Or accounting.  Or computer science.  A different way to look at it is, certain industries only grant access to those who have "paid their dues" in a way that is only realistic for members of the upper-class.

Here is what the real story here is: Young college grads from privileged families are able to do what it takes to pursue the dreams that their college degrees were supposed to give them access to (according to *The American Dream*), but those who are not able to live rent-free producing no income for years of unpaid internships are unable to fulfill those dreams despite having the same degree.

It's preposterous that CBS News picked someone trying to break into the fashion industry, who did not go to fashion school, on the east coast, as an example to represent the impact of the economy on college students nationwide.  The sacrifices required to break in to certain industries often depend on either luck or really wealthy parents who are untroubled by their offspring's much-prolonged journey to adulthood.  So essentially, a college degree often does little to overcome the barriers presented by social class.

This leads me to wonder, what would my dream have been if the barriers to breaking into an industry, however high, were completely manageable due to my social class and parental expectations?  Break into publishing as a book editor?  Be an artist unafraid of hunger and failure?  Start my own nonprofit knowing I have an endless safety net if it doesn't work out?  Take three years to write a book or start a business that may or may not allow me to ever fund a roof over my head?  Try to be an Oprah, or have my own magazine, or become a top freelance writer or consultant?

Some dreams I'm just too scared of, and that's my own issue I need to work on.  For some dreams, I value independence and my lifestyle too much to attempt.  But other dreams, well, I just am not and never have been in a place that allows for doing years of unpaid internships in order to gain access to not even the dream itself but just to the road to start to attain it. 

I was an English major, same as the woman who they interviewed.  Maybe I should do an internship to try to be an astronaut!  Here's what actually happened: while in school, I had a grantwriting internship that I balanced with my classes and part-time paid job at a furniture store.  After graduation, I worked full-time in a mind-numbing job as a legal secretary before getting a full-time grant-writing job (which, granted, I felt very fortunate to get).  I was horrified to work with some 20-year-old interns recently who had never had a job - just a series of internships and summers full of debate camp or international travel.  Class inequality in this country seems to get more extreme by the day. 

Ace blogger and controversy czarina Penelope Trunk has a lot to say about the questionable value of a college degree, and she suggests scrapping grad school altogether.  See here and here.  I mean, essentially, if we've known for some time that the voice of the American Dream that is telling you that a college degree will get you what you want is often lying, why do we keep listening to it?  She makes me want to start my own online business, and even though I often doubt her sanity I admire her writing ability and unique perspectives.

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