Labor Justice Toward the Youth

COMMENTARY: The lack of entry-level jobs with reasonable wages is an injustice toward today’s young adults and a source of future crisis.

A ‘now hiring’ sign is displayed in a window in Manhattan on July 28.
A ‘now hiring’ sign is displayed in a window in Manhattan on July 28. (photo: Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

As the United States marks Labor Day, Americans face a mixed labor bag, from a Catholic social-justice perspective. Unemployment is low. On the surface, that’s a good thing. But inflation is raging, devaluing wages, which are hard-pressed to keep pace with escalating costs of living. 

These trends all augur ill for a “just” labor market from the viewpoint of Catholic social ethics. But I want to focus on a particular constituency: the youth.

(Full disclosure: Some of my reflections come from the fact that I have a 22-year-old son about to graduate from college who has spent the better part of a year — in a country that ostensibly had more jobs on offer than workers to fill them — looking for an entry-level job.) 

Young people report increasing difficulties finding entry-level jobs. As they transition from being students to becoming workers, young people discover that finding that first full-time job is a daunting task. Perhaps it’s good that many high schools now seem obsessed with the “college admissions process” of interviews, essays, résumés, the “right” coursework and the “right” credentials, because students now seem to reprise that process as they try to begin their working lives. Or perhaps there’s something wrong with a system and society that make such basic aspects of human life like being able to study and find a job such arduous and extended undertakings. After all, Catholic social teaching makes clear work is a human right.

Today’s about-to-be graduate or just-graduated young adults are often unilaterally ferreted out of the job market unless they’ve had an internship, with many prospective employers further weeding out applicants over the “right” internship. But let’s face one dirty little secret: Lots of internships are unpaid. 

On a practical level, unpaid internships are unjust. Many young people are accumulating massive student-loan debt to attend college. One can say, “It’s not the employer’s fault,” but employers also have a stake in a healthy social environment for present and future workers. Young peoples’ leverage in controlling burgeoning college costs is limited. But to ignore how students cope with educational costs while offering them unpaid internships and summer jobs in service industries permitted to offer sub-minimum wages because “they’ll make it up in tips” is at best the apathy of the priest and Levite along the road to Jericho and at worst a Ponzi scheme. 

The injustice of unpaid internships runs deeper. Because internships are increasingly de facto expectations used to winnow job applicants, employers are implicitly sending the message that “the way you learn about work is to work for free.” That clashes directly with Christ’s words about the laborer being “worth his wage” (Luke 10:7; Matthew 10:10-11).

Let’s not adopt the stereotype that most internships are just “get the coffee and mind the phone.” Internships of that caliber are usually the result of the employer being too lazy to develop a productive work plan for the intern. 

But most internships usually result in interns producing some substantive work. Oftentimes, it’s work of a “secondary” nature, by which I mean “things we’d like to do but just don’t have the manpower for once we meet our essential tasks.” Such work expands the employer. So interns are not just “getting.” They’re also “giving.” 

On top of it all, unpaid internships reinforce class distinctions. If internships often function as expected credentials on résumés, then only young people from more secure economic backgrounds have the luxury of doing unpaid work. The result is that those who already enjoy economic advantages get a further leg up, while young people from working-class or disadvantaged backgrounds — less able to spend summers or free time working for nothing — fall further behind.

Similar problems arise with many entry-level jobs. Somewhat like “sub-minimum wage, plus tips,” many first jobs today no longer offer a standard salary, but, instead, some subfloor base pay coupled with “commissions,” “incentives” or “sales shares.” 

Last time I checked, nobody offers a subfloor rent with the additional monthly fee contingent on landlord performance. If costs are not contingent, neither should be wages. 

The fact that American society seems to be moving toward such tenuous wage policies, especially in entry-level work, poses social-justice issues. Catholic social theory does support profit-sharing and other creative forms of compensation like stock options, but not in lieu of a basic living wage. That caveat seems increasingly lost in an economy that pays lip service to “social justice” while in fact adopting some of the worst of laissez-faire capitalism.

Entering the working world was also typically the transition to establishing stability in life. The decade after leaving school was usually marked by getting a job and “settling down” to marriage and a family. But carrying debt coupled with minimally compensated first jobs contributes to young people’s reticence to get married or have children. Marriage and family are increasingly being “priced out” of the entry-level young adult’s world. That will have long-term social and economic consequences that short-sighted approaches to job entry fuel.

How to deal with these consequences requires a broader social dialogue than “we should cancel student loans” or “we should tax college endowments” to contain costs. Because of its long-term implications for a just society and its welfare, it’s everyone’s concern. But it needs to start by reaffirming some basic Catholic and natural-law principles like “the laborer is worth his wage.”