For decades, bosses at publishing houses, glossy magazines, consulting firms, advocacy groups, movie production companies and talent agencies have groomed their assistants to be the next generation of big shots by working them long hours for low wages.Call it the “Devil Wears Prada” economy, after the novel depicting life working for a fictionalized Anna Wintour, the longtime Vogue editor.But now, with the Obama administration moving to require time-and-a-half overtime pay for most salaried employees making less than $47,476 a year, that business model is suddenly under assault. The change presents more than an economic challenge for the companies that rely on the willingness of young, ambitious workers to trade pay and self-respect for a shot at a prestige job down the road.In the eyes of those who have survived the gantlet of midday coffee runs and late-night emails, the administration’s overtime regulation represents nothing less than the beginnings of a cultural shift, and not necessarily a welcome one.
It is not just New York publishing houses and Hollywood film studios that are affected. There is no exemption for nonprofit organizations. According to the Labor Department’s website, “the proposed rule may impact non-profit organizations having an annual dollar volume of sales or business done of at least $500,000.” Indeed, I violated my own rule of not acting like a reporter and actually queried some of D.C.’s indigenous think tanks to see if it would cover them. Bruce Jones, vice president and director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, confirmed to me that that the new rules were a “big issue” and that Brookings “will be covered by this but not quite clear yet how extensively.”
So it’s not just the “Prada” economy that’s affected — it’s the “West Wing” economy as well. That show valorized the concept of working until late in the evening as a sign that one was doing one’s policy job well. And as anyone who ever watched the show knows, deputy chief of staff Josh Lyman was nothing — nothing — without his assistant, one Donnatella Moss:
Throughout the think tanks and policy shops that litter Washington, there exists a veritable army of research assistants scurrying around performing a hundred thankless tasks, from organizing panels to managing schedules to processing reimbursements to proof-reading working papers to making sure the questioner at a panel aired by C-SPAN knows how to operate the microphone. They are uber-competent and adroit at managing the fragile egos of their bosses and bosses’ bosses. I know many outstanding experts in international relations who got their start by working as assistants at the Council on Foreign Relations or RAND or AEI. And I guarantee you that most of them worked more than 40 hours a week.
What will the effect of the new overtime rule be on this unrecognized army of research assistants who make the Ideas Industry function? Scheiber quotes one person in his story suggesting that there might be “a wink-and-nod approach” in which assistants ‘volunteer’ to work late without reporting it as overtime. That is certainly a possibility, which would mean not much of a shift from the status quo.
My fear, however, is that some think tanks might respond to this rule by hiring fewer paid assistants and offering more unpaid internships instead. A few talented research assistants might thrive under these new rules, but the real winners would be those undergraduates, postgraduates and graduate students who can afford such unpaid internships as a way to get their foot into the door of the Ideas Industry. And as aggrieved as research assistants might feel, there are even more serious problems with the intern economy.
A lot of policymaking is understanding the possibility of unintended consequences. We’ll see what the new overtime rules will do to the “West Wing” economy come Dec. 1.