Young People Can’t Work Their Way Into Prosperity

We are duped into working too many hours for free, and this is allowed by law

Young people like me face an economy with rising income inequality, rising higher education costs, climbing student debt, and relatively stagnant wages. We’re also facing a workplace culture that expects us to be available for long hours, sometimes around the clock.

Recent data show that the typical American works more than 8 hours during a workday. In fact, the average worker will work 44 to 47 hours per week, and young people work even longer hours than older people. This trend is partly responsible for an even darker reality – we young people are overworked, underpaid, and mentally drained. Mortality rates among those between 20 and 24 years increased by more than 20 percent between 2008 and 2016.

As a recently graduated woman of color with hopes and dreams, this scares me. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative is not just the narrative of rich white men trying to cut food stamp programs. This message has also been passed down from generation to generation by immigrants and black and brown people. In these communities, our mothers teach us we have to work twice as hard, twice as much, and twice as long as our white, male counterparts to amount to anything.

We are taught that as we work our way up, we will face hardships where our identities will be questioned, our time will be exploited, and our worth will be invalidated. We are told, however, not to succumb to feelings of despair; the struggle will be worth it the day we will be able to provide for ourselves and our families, and build up our communities.

The message is one of persistence and resilience. Our communities pride themselves on their abilities to overcome, and this is not to be taken lightly. But what if the pull yourself up by your bootstrap narrative is not sufficient? What if a greater, structural change is required?

The deterioration of workplace protections are part of this problem. The last time salaried overtime protections were updated in the state of Washington was in 1976, when the threshold was set at the equivalent of $13,000 for a year’s salaried full-time work (approximately 2.7 times the state minimum wage). It has not been adjusted for to account for inflation, or the fact that the current year minimum wage equivalent of $24,960.

Worse, because the protections haven’t been updated, employers are taking previously hourly jobs – such as grocery store managers, administrative assistants, and YMCA staff – and turning them into salaried positions so they can pay their workers less.

Young people, people of color, women and all those that fall in the intersections in between, bear the brunt of the consequences of inaction. The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” narrative pushes us to adhere to a workplace culture that has insisted that the only way for us to make it anywhere is to put in twice the time and twice the work – but without overtime protections, those unpaid extra hours are basically volunteer work for our employers.

Despite years of falling into the trap of believing we can work our way to success, being underpaid and undervalued leaves our communities and families neglected.

I reject the idea that my ability to achieve and move towards the ‘American dream’ is dependent on the exploitation of my time and work. The Department of Labor and Industries’ proposal to set the salary threshold for overtime and sick leave protections at 2.5 times the state minimum wage will benefit hundreds of thousands of workers – myself included. Updating these rules will restore our dignity, and reestablish our abilities to take care and build for ourselves, our families and our communities.



  • Leave a Reply
    • Elaine Nonneman

      Very well stated. All employees should have unions.

      Jul 28 2019 at 10:16 PM

    • W.P. Kelpfroth

      Every time I have felt underpaid,
      1. I looked for and found a better job.
      2. Took a course or two to better chances for advancement, either at the current job or at the next one.

      Aug 11 2019 at 11:59 AM

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