BOOK REVIEW: "Intern Nation" By Ross Perlin
Slate magazine recently exposed, perhaps unwittingly, a depressing truth about the economics of unpaid internships. The popular website's editorial office apparently used to treat its interns to a nice farewell lunch at the end of the semester-long program. As the recession deepened and journalism outlets began tightening budgets, that lunch was replaced by a trip to the local bar. In recent months, Slate blogger Chris Wilson writes, the interns have taken to bringing in homemade cookies, donuts and six-packs: “It's a sign of how desperate things are in journalism that today's interns don't even expect a goodbye lunch, or even a farewell six-pack. Jobs are so scarce, and experience is so valuable, that they are grateful for any sort of indentured servitude.”
In Perlin’s portrayal, the modern internship is like the blue collar apprenticeship’s demon offspring. Apprenticeships would typically involve rigorous on-the-job training and include the likely possibility of employment at the end. Apprentices often even get benefits such as health care. The author offers the little-publicized traditional apprenticeship as a potential model for fair internship programs.
Though some internship program offer valuable experience, many simply serve as cheap labor farms for corporations and start-ups trying to pinch pennies in the recession. Furthermore, the legal precariousness of interns leaves them without protection from abuse. One intern, faced with sexual harassment from a coworker, lacks legal recourse because she’s not a legit employee.
Perlin infiltrates the world of the Disney College Program, where 7,000-8,000 students each year perform thankless, menial tasks for long hours and little pay. Many drop the program because they can’t afford living expenses at the Disney compound. Brainwashed by pixie dust and Disney jargon (workspaces are “learning laboratories”), interns do janitorial and fast food labor under the guise of an educational opportunity. “We’re not there to flip burgers,” one intern says. “We’re there to create magic.”
The economic incentives won’t allow for change. Young people feel they need internships to break into the white collar workplace. Colleges and universities support this notion, picking up some easy revenue along the way when unpaid interns pay for credits, essentially paying for the privilege of working for free. In an extreme example of the pay-to-play mentality, a Huffington Post internship was once auctioned off for $13,000. A corporation called the University of Dreams (now called Dream Careers) charges $1,000 per week for glamorous placements.
Few stop to consider the economic and moral implications of this. It devalues work and demoralizes talented young people. Even more troubling, it excludes from certain careers all but those wealthy enough to work for free or brave enough to take on the necessary debt. Add the usual requirement of an expensive graduate degree and “generation debt” sinks further and further. It contributes to the class stratification of the workplace. Nowhere is this more troubling than in journalism and politics, where opinion-makers are becoming more uniformly white and wealthy.
Perlin’s writing toggles between the tones of an exposé, a polemic screed and a literature review. Though it does a fair job of summarizing the rise of internships, it spends too much time on the history of American labor, when the more interesting bits are when he infiltrates the Disney compound and speaks with the interns themselves. He quotes extensively from the books of sociologists like New York University’s Andrew Ross and books like "Mousecatraz," a memoir about the horrors of the Disney college program. The concrete data, Perlin acknowledges, is sparse, partly because internships are often a grey market.
Most importantly, Perlin leaves no one off the hook. The private companies, NGOs and government offices trying to cut corners, the schools that do nothing to sift through the piles of illegal opportunities and the parents who encourage and fund their kids’ serial internships that lead nowhere – they all take heat.
Much of the responsibility is laid on the interns themselves. The droves of young people clamoring to work for free are changing the culture of work in a system that, more than ever, encourages obsequious careerism. (Easy for Perlin to say, college kids are likely to retort. He already has a publishing career.) Interns have rebelled and gone on strike in Europe. Not so much in the U.S. Young people may decide they need internships to break into the careers they want, but they should at least know their rights. Certainly, they should never expect a free lunch.
Watch a talk by Ross Perlin at C-SPAN on the rise of the intern economy.