The subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now part of being young. In my first years of high school, I dimly understood that an internship was a privilege or a necessary humiliation, but wasn’t sure which. When I finally made the plunge and took an internship, I was 23, enrolled in a master’s program at the University of London, and worried that my résumé was looking increasingly impractical.
I hoped to put a long-festering anxiety to rest. I had been insecure about internships for years – as long as I’d been watching friends announce their life’s passion and then maneuver, by all means necessary, to score the matching internship.
My internship was located in Islington, an NGO (and intern) ghetto of sleek little offices hidden down narrow streets. During the dampest half of a London year, I spent two days at the NGO each week, unpaid except for a basic lunch stipend and transit costs. Often barely noticed, I’d look up from my laptop, brought from home, to the rain dripping down beyond the window. My “desk” could be anywhere in the hip disarray: interns shifted spots depending on the day’s configuration of regular staff. I translated material on the NGO’s website from Chinese to English. Or, I wrote comments in the online forums, did image searches or finished schoolwork.
The interns – and we were a merry little band – earned an honorable mention during the office Christmas party, but it backfired in humiliating fashion: no one knew who we were. The clapping of our full-time colleagues was polite and confused; they craned their necks in various directions, attempting to direct their forced smiles toward someone.
Soon after, at a dingy lunch counter where the measly sandwiches fit our stipend, a fellow intern said to me, “The best thing about internships is that you can spin them.”
He had it exactly right. Internships are a world of spin. You can spin them because – whether you’re an intern or an employer – no one knows what they mean. Even the word “intern” is a smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job, and so on.
The internship has become a distinctive new form of labor, a product of transformations in higher education and the workplace during the last half-century. Ever since the Victorian demarcation of childhood as a time for learning rather than laboring, capitalist societies have struggled over how to usher young people from the world of the classroom into the world of factories and offices.
After a century of experimentation, the internship, a latecomer to the field, has emerged victorious as the unrivaled gateway to white-collar work, now backed by government policies across the globe, employers’ hiring practices, a nearly unanimous Academy and a million auxiliary efforts.
Today, interns famously shuttle coffee in a thousand newsrooms, congressional offices and Hollywood studios. But they also deliver aid in Afghanistan, write newsletters for churches, build the human genome, sell lipstick, deliver the weather report on TV and pick up trash. They are college students working part-time, recent graduates barely scraping by, thirty-somethings changing careers, and – increasingly – just about any white-collar hopeful who can be hired on a temporary basis, for cheap or for free, often taking on work once performed by full-time, paid employees.
Our favorite peons, we load them with little indignities. An intern for a New York theater company carries urine samples to her boss’s doctor. A supervisor directs an intern to load his own car with leaking bags of garbage and drive around until he finds a dumpster. Required by their school to take “a social internship,” two girls in the Netherlands, aged 14 and 15, intern as prostitutes in the local red-light district.
In its own affectionate, distorted way, popular culture alone seems to understand the intern. In the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, when one of the bland faceless interns on Team Zissou threatens to leave the expedition, Captain Zissou retaliates by vowing to withhold his academic credit.
We are reaching a period when the commanding heights of American life are dominated by former interns. Senators and cabinet members started political life as D.C. interns, Wall Street’s “masters of the universe” cut their teeth during collegiate summers, cultural and intellectual elites broke in through cozy unpaid gigs and on it goes. It comes as little surprise that these successful former interns now perpetuate the system that gave them a start.
“You will not get a high-level job now in the economy without an internship” – this is the blunt assessment of Phil Gardner, head of Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, who has watched the boom for 30 years.
I worked more than 300 hours without pay for the NGO in Islington, but at least I had a scholarship that covered my living expenses. Others were supported by their parents or dug deep into their savings. But what about those qualified young men and women, I wondered, who can’t depend on their families or their rainy-day funds to pay for housing and food? Would they ever be able to enter the do-gooder world of NGOs? With unpaid internships virtually a prerequisite for getting hired, I had to admit that the answer was probably no. The fact is, internships embody and promote the inequalities of opportunity that civilized people have been striving to reduce in courts, schools and communities.
The future of work is at stake
After the titanic struggles of the early twentieth century, the industrialized world reached a degree of consensus about work. People agree that 10-year-olds should be found in school, not in coal mines; that weekends and vacations should be available to all; that basic workplace protections and a minimum wage are part of a fair and just society and that workers should be able to organize around their common interests.
Many internships represent a slow drift away from this firm, humane consensus about work. Along with the explosion of contingent labor and much scarier trends such as the resurgence of sweatshops and a global race to the bottom around labor standards, internships are turning back the clock. They are symptomatic of a drastically unequal, hypercompetitive world in the making – one in which, as so many Americans rightly fear, succeeding generations will work harder for a lower quality of life with fewer avenues for getting ahead.
Present, former and future interns need to take action to restore the promise and dignity of work. Until now, young people have ceded everything, asking only for a foot in the door. It’s time to stop spreading the internship gospel. Stop thinking your labor is, was, or will be worthless. Just because you have a student ID and live in a dorm doesn’t mean you’re not also a worker. Identify and organize as interns, and form alliances with like-minded groups such as temps and freelancers. If you’ve moved on, don’t forget the rookie of the workforce, the unpaid kid doing menial and administrative work: the intern.
We are the future of work. The internship explosion is not an emergency, yet – it is a simmering injustice, a glass ceiling half-built that there is still time to tear down. And it is more than just a phase or a fluke: when working for free becomes the norm, everyone loses – except those at the very top. We’ve trusted the assurances of others too much, for too long. We’ve been free for the taking. When will our hours matter?
This essay was adapted from Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (Verso, May 2011).