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The Age of the Intern: Pandemic-Era Undergrads Now Finish Up to 8 Internships Per Year

Another case of toxic productivity? Or an extraordinary triumph born from a generation’s grief?
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First came the Coursera craze. Now, this. 

Once upon a time, the internship was nothing more than a wearisome requirement for college students to complete their degrees. But if there’s one thing everybody should know by now, it’s to never doubt a pandemic’s ability to redefine work. Combine the new accessibility of remote internships with the classic case of pandemic-induced anxiety, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a brand new cutthroat internship climate. 

Driven by their desires to gear up for the future and optimize their time at home, college students have become hypercompetitive in their quest to fill their resumes. They’ve moved on from their certified online courses from Ivy Leagues, and are now building credentials with internship after internship. 

Case in point: Hannah and Martina, two astronomically high-achieving students from one of the country’s top universities. In 2021 alone, Hannah completed eight internships and managed to earn up to P37,000 per month; one batch lower, Martina is now on her 11th internship and isn’t even graduating yet. Both students interned at a wide variety of host companies, from startups and e-commerce businesses to giant multinationals. 

The Rise of the Serial Intern

When asked about the start of their internship journeys, Hannah and Martina cited the need to do something productive at the dawn of the lockdown. “There was nothing to do and I was just really bored,” said Martina. “Personally I’m someone who can’t not be doing anything, so I thought, Why not make the most out of the moment?” 

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Martina balanced up to four internships at once even after school shifted to virtual learning. Her university divided the academic year into quarters (instead of the usual semesters), which provided a lighter workload. “I only had two to three classes at a time, and it wasn’t like we met every day. On average I’d only have one hour of class; for the rest of the day, I was free.” 

Besides her dedication to self-advancement, Hannah also attributed her drive for getting internships to feeling “so useless at home.” Given how she used to spend three hours commuting each day, she found herself with far more free time on her hands. 

Despite the still-chaotic state of the world, Hannah and Martina are at the top of their game, and they have no plans to back down from the interns' arena any time soon. While not all students will relate to finishing 11 internships before graduating, the rise of “the serial intern” is a very real modern phenomenon. The duo’s insights about lack of work-life balance and the culture of toxic productivity—the less glamorous flipsides of the high-achieving lifestyle—hit home for many of their fellow students today. 

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Classic, Soul-Sapping Toxic Productivity—or is it? 

Hannah admitted not taking time to rest on most days, though she claims this is a personal thing; she identifies, sincerely, as a “super workaholic”. 

“I’m not sure how much influence the whole ‘hustle culture’ has on me,” she said, “but I guess it does somewhat validate or fuel the things I’m doing. It’s not like what I’m putting myself through is something others aren’t putting themselves through. It is that competitive.” 

Martina explained that checking things off her list feels like an added point in value to herself: “To me, staying productive is saying no to being complacent, or saying no to being a freeloader.” She also opened up about fearing that she’d be frowned upon by others for not taking initiative, and cited the culture among her peers as a driving force behind her appetite for internships. “??Everyone’s talking about getting internships with FMCGs and all these big companies, so that shaped my mindset, too. I felt like I needed to stay within the competition.” 

Another serial intern we spoke to, Ashley, dove deeper into the struggles her generation faces today. Currently in her senior year of college, Ashley is on her fifth internship and counting. 

“I feel anxious whenever I’m not doing anything—and it’s definitely not just me,” she said. “Whenever you’ve accomplished one thing, you always think you shouldn’t stop there. Maybe there’s a little bit of greed involved in that; I don't know if it's greed, or just the pressure to be somebody. Social media amplifies that as well. If you’re not being productive, it kind of diminishes your worth as a person.” 

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Of course, there are genuine pleasures to be found in individual success and self-improvement. And it will never be fair to immediately write off everyone who’s thriving in today’s intense work culture as a mere victim of toxic productivity. Deadset on success, the serial intern is a fiery up-and-comer with a backbone made of steel—but when the world is still in the thick of The Great Resignation, why are the youth so worried about getting ahead in their careers? 

A Defining Dilemma for Every Generation

Studies have found that Generation Z feels the pandemic has affected their education and career goals more than any other generation. To them, COVID-19 is what the Great Depression was for Traditionalists, according to Jessica Stollings-Holder, president of ReGenerations: a company that studies generational trends to help organizations manage their employees. In a survey of over 500 Gen Z members from six countries, ReGenerations found that 50 percent are worried about falling behind in their schooling, 67 percent are worried about job prospects, 80 percent are worried about financial stability, and 41 percent think they will be worse off when the pandemic ends. Another global study by Deloitte in 2021 found that concerns about job and career prospects are Gen Z’s foremost worry.

In contrast, the Millennial dilemma of The Great Resignation is a defiant rebuke of the black hole of careerism. Upon re-evaluating their priorities, Gen Z’s older siblings are quitting their jobs left and right as they place higher value on work-life balance and company culture. Money is important, but money alone is no longer enough—if they find themselves perpetually burned out due to an overbearing work environment caused by the pandemic, you best believe they’ll be handing in their notices and switching to a company that better aligns with their overall goals.

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There’s definitely one thing, though, that Generation Z and Millennials can agree on: the contemporary world, no matter how you look at it, is in deep, utter shit. While Millennials have been pegged as “The Burnout Generation,” Generation Z is plagued with what’s been coined as “Gen Z Dread.” Plenty of studies try to identify which among them actually takes the cake for ‘most depressed.’ But really, no one wins. What with the environmental crisis, toxic political climate, growing inequality, and a life-altering pandemic, career issues are just one among the many wicked contributors to younger generations’ sense of impending doom. 

“Salaries are still so low, and cost of living is so high,” Hannah tells us. But the experience she’s built through her internships has made her feel very prepared for job hunting season. “I have the confidence to go through interviews and I’ve curated my resume to the tee, so by the time I apply for jobs I already know what to expect. And I know that I can handle it. Hopefully, that will get me the career I want and make life easier.” 

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With eight internships (going on nine this coming March), Hannah’s already reached the point where she has to think long and hard about which offers she shouldn’t reject; the days of having to wait months before hearing back from companies are long behind her. Responses now come to her in lightning speed, she’s likely earned the rightful title of an HR manager’s dream. 

Victories Born From a Generation’s Grief 

What’s there to be said about a generation like this? 

Truth is, every generation is wrestling with matters that are much larger and more complex than any one person can completely understand. And in a world as brutal as the one we’re planted in today, it’s an easy way out to conclude that every person we see has merely succumbed to the hedonic treadmill. Indeed, it’s natural to want to make the most out of what you have, but perhaps one thing any generation can be wary of is the danger of attributing implicit moral value to the contents of one’s resume. 

It’s a cruel world out there for Generation Z. The anxieties hanging over their heads are just as real and just as painful as any anxiety is for anyone. But judging by the amount of grit they use to face their employment-related anxieties in battle, they might end up being more prepared to face the real world than any other generation has been before. 

And perhaps—supposing, of course, that your optimism permits—if every generation tried to uproot the all the wicked sources of our anxieties, using the same level of ambition of the Martinas, the Hannahs, and the Ashleys, then the world’s future might not be as bleak as we’re tempted to believe.

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Claudine Abad Santos
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