David Kingman reflects on the internship debate
A new book ‘Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy’ by Ross Perlin, an American author, analyses in impressive detail the growing exploitation of young people by the older generation in the corporate world.
Perlin explains how the name ‘intern’ originated in the medical profession in the US, where it described trainee doctors who’d recently graduated from medical school and had to spend two years working under supervision in a hospital before they’d be granted a licence to practise medicine. It was then adopted by the political establishment in Washington D.C. during the 1950s and 60s, who began taking on students as unpaid workers to help with the administrative tasks that keep the political machine running.
Internships then gradually seeped over into other professions in the rest of the economy, until we arrived at the present situation in which doing one is a vital first step on the employment ladder for most professional occupations. However, Perlin argues that up until the 1990s or so, internships usually carried some kind of reward; they were generally much shorter, and either they were remunerated to some extent, or they carried with them the promise of a paid job once the internship had been completed
Nowadays, an internship can be very long – often up to six months, full-time – and jobs at the end of them are very few and far and between. Many new graduates can spend a couple of years at the start of their career grinding from placement to placement, often gaining few skills while accumulating debt from having to pay living expenses without earning anything.
A point Perlin makes is that the modern internship involves a curious combination of both exploitation and privilege; many of the people who are exploited by performing internships are only able to get them through family contacts, leaving people who aren’t well-connected enough to get their hands on one effectively shut out from a number of professions. This has a negative impact on social mobility, especially since working for free is obviously quite expensive, especially in London, so it is often only young workers who have families willing to support them that will be able to take advantage of the dubious ‘opportunities’ internships provide.
Perlin argues that much of what interns do should be covered by the National Minimum Wage Act, as any employment which has fixed hours and duties is supposed to be. Fortunately, the government seems to have recently taken an interest in enforcing its own law in this area, by announcing that informal internships in government offices would be phased out by 2012 – although the fact that the Daily Telegraph reported Westminster was deriving 18,000 hours of unpaid labour a week from interns before this announcement shows how important they had become to the way the government operated.
Perlin discussed his book on 6 June episode of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Start the Week’ programme with Andrew Marr, in which Marr argued that the internship debate is an intergenerational issue; ‘a typical example of the baby-boomers pulling every ladder up behind them’. It’s worth remembering that in the baby-boomer generation young workers didn’t have to go through a series of unstable internships in order to get their feet on the corporate ladder, but now that it’s their turn to offer work, they support and propagate a system that requires their children’s generation to undergo this unjust introduction to the workplace.
‘Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy’ by Ross Perlin is out now in hardback, Verso Books, 288pp.