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labor Toxic Work Environments Shouldn’t Be a Rite of Passage

“The ‘pay your dues’ concept is a trap.” At a first job, it’s almost a cultural expectation that you’ll be underpaid, harassed, or exploited in some way.

Young woman at work with her head in her hands.
Jay Yuno,

Recently, Monica*, 22, showed up to her job at a fast food restaurant and was ordered to take out braids she’d had put in less than 24 hours ago. This was despite the fact that her hair was in a ponytail and covered in two hairnets and a visor, not to mention the fact that other employees have hair of all different colors and lengths, and, she says, often don’t wear their hair nets.

This was just the latest indignity Monica says she endured on the job. It took months for her employer to approve her request accommodation to work overnights so she could spend the day with her toddler daughter; even then, she says, her manager sometimes calls her in to work an “afternoon” shift that ends at 10 p.m., the same time her overnight shift begins, with no overtime pay. When Monica had to attend a funeral, her employer proceeded to “blow up her phone,” requesting that she come in, despite knowing where she was. “I guess they want you to come to work and grieve at work,” Monica tells Teen Vogue.

The grim pivot from “essential workers are our heroes” to “no one wants to work; they’re lazy” wasn’t unexpected. After some workers were forced to make starvation wages during a deadly pandemic, some companies are blaming those who are reluctant to come back for contributing to a “labor shortage,” or what’s been called a “reassessment” of the future of work. Part of that reassessment — which includes worker strikes and walkouts that have gone viral — includes unpacking the sprawling landscape of workplace abuse that defines the job environments and self-esteem of young people who are working too much for too little, told they have to “pay their dues,” and even forced to endure racist and sexist workplaces. “It's just gotten to the point where it's just really toxic,” Monica says of her job. She wishes her employer paid higher wages, provided child care, or helped with college. Instead, she says, the employer just demands more and more.

The myth that young people are supposed to endure abusive work environments as a rite of passage into the labor market skims over the systemic issues that allow those environments to persist in the first place. At a first job, it’s almost a cultural expectation that you’ll be underpaid, harassed, or exploited in some way, despite research that shows that early career experiences can have significant impact on the rest of our working lives.

Some young people feel stuck in these demeaning jobs, often for financial reasons. But others who feel they’re in a position to do so are trying to stop this cycle of abuse and exploitation, and saying there’s some workplace behavior they simply aren’t going to put up with. After witnessing the Me Too movement and summer 2020 reckoning over racial justice, many have recognized how pervasive toxic workplace cultures truly are. Whether it’s forming a union at their job, reporting an abusive boss, or even quitting a job they can’t tolerate, young workers are trying to leave something better for the generations that come after them.

“The ‘pay your dues’ concept is a trap, as is all neoliberal ‘boot-strapping’ and ‘hard work for the American dream’ ideologies, because they are out of line with how our economic system actually works: work doesn’t get you anywhere unless you’re in a position of power,” Nat Baldino, policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), told Teen Vogue via email.

Racism and capitalism fundamentally support each other, they said, so “it is no surprise that the most egregious workplace violations are happening to workers of color, women, immigrants, and LGBTQIA+ workers.” Policies keep these workers in low-paying jobs by design.

Several years ago, Nia West-Bey, director of youth policy at CLASP, led a series of focus groups with young women of color throughout the country. “The stories that we heard from young women about sexual harassment in low-wage work were shocking and appalling — and common,” West-Bey tells Teen Vogue. She recalls a young Indigenous woman talking about her fast-food job, and the expectation that she would have to sleep with the manager to advance or get a good schedule; she mentions a young mother who had a baby and was forced to go back to work after just two weeks because of lack of paid leave.

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The change shouldn’t just be to work environments. There should be a change in how we value people, she says.

“There has to be a change in how we value labor, value people's labor, and value them as people first and not as just labor,” West-Bey adds. Too often, people assume young people don’t need to work — or that they’re working to afford extras, rather than taking care of their children or paying their bills. Job quality matters for young people just as much as it does for older people, West-Bay says, and their first experiences stay with them through the rest of their careers.

Power is rarely brought up in career advice aimed at young people, who are instead told to “take every opportunity” and “be professional.” But it defines the abuse so many young people experience across industries. Hannah, 21, was thrilled when she got hired at $17 an hour to be the program director at a summer camp. When she met the man who would be her boss, she says he flirted with her. At the time, Hannah recalled, she thought, “$17 an hour, he can be flirty. I'm so broke. I mean, I'm barely making ends meet.” The situation escalated, up until the point when her boss made a comment about “how my ass looked in the leggings or something” after she led yoga at the camp. Hannah quickly ended the conversation, but the next day, she says, he fired her. She has since filed a wrongful termination suit against her former employer.

The impact of toxic work environments doesn’t stay at work. Young people who spoke to Teen Vogue cited the disillusionment with “progressive” workplaces, including on campaigns or in politics, which advocated for one set of policies publicly while, behind the scenes, staff were overworked and underpaid. Others talked about being mocked when they needed to take paid time off to tend to their mental health, and several disabled or chronically ill young adults mentioned being pushed out of their workplaces. Some teachers and caregivers said they were told the fulfillment they get from their work should be payment enough.

Sean, 24, is a caregiver for adults with traumatic brain injuries. He makes $12.50 an hour, and is considering quitting to work at Starbucks, where he’d make around the same amount but the worst thing he could do is make someone the wrong beverage. In his current job, he provides hands-on care, from helping people go to the bathroom to talking them through suicidal ideation, despite feeling “so woefully inadequate doing this job.” Understaffing is a chronic issue, and when Sean brings up that his employer isn’t paying people enough to retain them, he’s told, “‘Oh, you think you deserve our money? Well, there's lots of people who do this job and get paid less than you. And something that they get from it is the joy of having done a good job.’”

It’s another element of the pay-your-dues mentality that puts the onus of work precarity back on employees. Rather than focusing on issues like excessive work, understaffing, and low-wages, it pivots the burden to employees who aren’t “motivated” or “doing enough.” When Faith* was doing a full-time, unpaid internship with a prestigious arts company, she recalls being criticized every time she was caught sitting down and told by supervisors that they wouldn’t recommend her for another position of similar nature because she couldn’t “keep up.” “Somehow, my 19-year-old brain internalized that and I convinced myself that I must not be working hard enough to receive anything,” Faith, now 21, tells Teen Vogue.

For a lot of young people, quitting was simply not an option, and systems they were told were in place to protect them — including human resources — did nothing of the sort. Tia*, now 27, tells Teen Vogue that, when she called out racism in a previous workplace, HR sided with her manager. “No one believed me because most of the staff saw my manager as being ‘not racist’ because she hired the only Black person in that office — which was me,” Tia explains. She also found out she was making less than the person she was training, which HR refused to acknowledge. “They wanted me to be happy that I even had a job but I was not being paid a life-sustaining salary.”

A more equitable workplace would have more staff and executives of color, Tia adds. “There are too many jobs that are lowballing Black and brown women and men for their work that they would never offer to their white peers.” She now screens all workplaces on Glassdoor, Indeed, and social media before she even applies.

Jordan*, 27, tells Teen Vogue that stress, long hours, poor benefits, and lack of work-life balance drove her and her colleagues to form a union earlier this year. After employees released a letter laying out workplace concerns, employers responded saying they were disappointed in the staff for taking the matter public. Jordan says unionizing brought a lot of lower-level employees, herself included, closer together. “Eventually, I found out that I, the only Black designer within the company, was also the lowest-paid one too,” Jordan says. The experience also taught her a lot about labor movements, and showed her not everyone at the “top is scum,” something she says she needed to see for her own sanity. But the union effort has also been used as an excuse by management, who say they’re holding off on planned pay raises and any changes to workplace conditions as negotiations proceed.

“I think I would tell my younger self that having a 9-to-5 is not the endgame, it will not make you happy, it is not a sign of success,” Jordan adds. “I know most people don't like their jobs, but it should at least be something that doesn't trigger a deep depression within you.”

The litany of common toxic workplace talking points are endless: your coworkers are “a family,” sticking it out will toughen you up, and so on.

What needs to change is basically everything, Nat Baldino says, because one abuse enables another. Millennials have lived through two recessions, a lifetime of wars, no federal minimum wage increase, and largely inadequate paid leave and benefits policies, he tells Teen Vogue. “The generations after them have watched this happen, and know better because of it,” Baldino adds. “And because they know better, they are beginning to demand better, together.” The vision of freedom young people are advocating for can only be realized with comprehensive federal policy changes, coupled with grassroots power and worker power, they say. That looks like securing paid leave, paid sick days, fair scheduling, and stronger labor standards enforcement mechanisms, as well as passing The Protecting the Right to Organize Act (aka the PRO Act), which would make it easier for workers to organize and collectively bargain for better working conditions.

But that isn’t all. A true reassessment of work demands reassessment of society as a whole — what and who we value. “It also means ending mass incarceration, raising the minimum wage, protecting immigrant families, and more,” Baldino says. “Our workplaces are a microcosm of the society that we live in, and when that society is unequal and oppressive, our workplaces will be, too.”