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Books & Arts

Precarious times

30 June 2011

You shouldn’t have to work for free to break into the white-collar world, argues Ross Perlin in this new book. Sara Dowse agrees

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Photo: zilli/ iStockphoto

Photo: zilli/ iStockphoto

Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

By Ross Perlin
Verso | $34.95


WELCOME to the world of white-collar exploitation. What child labour and apprenticeships were to preceding centuries, internships are shaping up to be for ours. While the most prestigious are largely the preserve of the privileged – the offspring of parents who, having already underwritten their undergraduate and graduate years, can afford to support them further in unpaid or scarcely paid positions – those from lower-income families are forced to make huge sacrifices to get into the game. That so many internships are menial, pointless and anything but educational doesn’t negate their value for those seeking footholds in our increasingly globalised economy. Nor should it surprise us that the global financial crisis has kicked the business along.

As interning encompasses a seemingly infinite range of “experiences,” it’s been wide open for abuse. Steven Greenhouse’s article, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not,” published in the New York Times in April last year was one of the first to focus attention on potential abuses. Greenhouse reported that the US Department of Labor was cracking down on employers who sidestepped the federal criteria for hiring unpaid interns. Internships – work experience is what we called it once in Australia – are supposed to be a form of training augmenting secondary or tertiary education. Increasingly, however, they are taken up after university and do not comply with the specifications of the US Fair Labor Standards Act. That law states clearly that unpaid internships should be similar to vocational or academic training, and should not replace existing workers or be to the employer’s “immediate advantage.” Though much of the evidence was anecdotal, and nationwide statistics were difficult to compile, Greenhouse reported that employers in a number of American industries were strongly suspected of substituting internships for entry-level jobs.

The Greenhouse piece stirred up a media storm – the issue even made the Colbert Report, to great comic effect, and there are a lot of intern gags around. But young people burdened with student loans and needing to find paid work in order to take on unpaid internships might have a hard time getting the joke. For those who can’t afford even that, none of this is funny. A more recent flurry of articles in the British press gives some indication of how widespread and vexatious the phenomenon is, and how it can be turned to advantage by lobby groups. The Guardian’s Laurie Penny has argued that judicious placement of interns can be used to skew parliamentary policy-making. She cites the case of Christian Action, Research and Education, a lobby group currently being investigated by Britain’s charities commission, which has spent thousands of pounds providing British MPs with interns sympathetic to its campaign to abolish abortion. But this isn’t the only organisation seeking to place “right-thinking” interns in parliamentary offices. Despite the British government’s social mobility policy and David Cameron’s announcing a drive against unpaid internships, the Conservative Party has embraced the invidious American practice of auctioning internships as a form of fundraising.

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation is the most comprehensive and penetrating examination of these developments to date. Perlin covers all the angles – historical, legal, economic, social and experiential. Very readable and positively mind-boggling in parts, the book’s cumulative effect is a challenge to all of us. The plain facts are that employers are getting away with murder, educational establishments are complicit, young people are being sold a crock, and a lot of talent is being wasted or, worst of all, excluded.

Perlin’s motivation for writing the book arose from a disappointing internship he signed up for himself, in London as it happened, while studying for a master’s degree. He translated material from Chinese into English until there was no more left to translate, and not much else to do. A fellow intern, equally dispirited, put him in the picture. “Internships,” he said, “are a world of spin.” Despite what regulations there are (and how they’re being enforced), no one really knows what interns are meant to do, or what employers are meant to do for them, or even how many there are. What people do know is that internships look good on resumés, and in the brave new world of service economies, the well-padded resumé rules.

The generation joining the white-collar workforce today is arguably the most highly credentialled ever to seek paid employment and yet, paradoxically, the one least equipped to secure it. They’ve been taught, instead, to be “entrepreneurs.” Starting in primary school, writes Perlin, a list of “experiences” is developed, all of them directed towards building up resumés and “following dreams.” It’s free-wheeling American capitalism gone mad. Perlin turns his sights on its loopiest expression in his chapter on internships at Disney World. In no way distinguishable from any other form of burger flipping or low-level hospitality work, a Disney World internship is nonetheless extremely sought after. The living conditions are appalling and interns work long, unpaid, clearly illegal hours. But brainwashed into believing they are enhancing their education, and that the shitwork they provide is actually an investment, they’re loath to protest.

The Disney World example, though extreme, throws a strong light on the whole phenomenon. Perlin traces its exponential development back to Gary Becker, the Chicago School economist who first wrote of “human capital” in the 1970s. The concept, eagerly adopted as a key element in free marketeering, has effectively shifted responsibility for training from employers to their prospective employees, and significantly contributed to the prolonged adolescence increasingly characteristic of first-world societies. In succeeding chapters Perlin offers instance after instance of twenty-somethings accumulating internships in order to embellish their resumés, all too often with discouraging results. Some never get off the merry-go-round, and with the ongoing recession it’s possible that many never will.

As for those who can’t afford internships, who need to work simply to stay at university or repay hefty student loans, even the privilege to be exploited is closed off. The class implications are obvious. In any case, the most valuable internships are always going to be available to those who have connections, whose parents or family or family friends have pull. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in the media, arts and fashion – industries that shape attitudes and influence public policy. As for Washington DC, the title Intern City is well-deserved. Indeed, for those of us clueless enough to associate interns with the medical profession, the first we may have heard of the Washington variety was with Monica Lewinsky, whose choice internship with the White House came through a family friend. Washington’s intern hierarchy reaches down through the committees, congressional offices and think tanks to the lowliest of NGOs. You can’t get far in the capital without an internship, but living conditions are so precarious that new arrivals in the city are presented with a guide to the ubiquitous happy hours and receptions where they can avail themselves of free food and drink.

Unheard of not too many years ago, internships are with us in Australia. Unlike the States, which has a long tradition of volunteerism, doing work for nothing or a pittance has hitherto been very un-Australian, even if it’s trumped up as education. Many of the internships advertised on websites such as Australian Internships and Professional Pathways Australia are not available to Australian citizens or permanent residents, and are connected, if loosely, to our overseas education industry. But internships here are becoming more common, as Australia’s economy becomes increasingly globalised and our society more Americanised. What this could signify for Gen Y and beyond is a future more precarious than anything we’ve known.

Perlin spends time distinguishing between apprenticeships, which are associated with blue-collar work and have recently been much maligned, and the nebulous world of internships. The US Office of Apprenticeship is a federal body dedicated to encouraging well-formulated, adequately paid training for skilled workers. But apprenticeships are not keeping pace with internships, as most tertiary institutions focus on training for service industries. Perlin speaks of a mere 500,000 active US apprenticeships compared with up to two million internships. Apprenticeships are often funded by unions, and union clout has seriously diminished, especially in the States, while interns, fed on a diet of human capital ideology since primary school, regard themselves as autonomous entrepreneurs and are notoriously resistant to organising. In Europe, however, where the economic downturn has hit equally hard, interns have formed a network to protest against lousy conditions and pay. These victims of “precarity” have cultivated a sense of humour too, holding carnivals honouring the patron Saint Precaria, the only agency they can think of that might lessen the unpredictability and contingency of their working lives.

Perlin is to be congratulated for staking much of his own working life on this book. Up-to-the minute, well-researched and cogently analytical, his book has attracted critics nonetheless. Heather Huhman, an internship enthusiast who runs a company called Come Recommended, is criticised by Perlin for using six unpaid interns out of a staff of eleven to help “students and recent college graduates pursue their dream careers.” He got this information from her website, but Huhman has hit back, accusing Perlin and his publisher of lacking due diligence and questioning his credentials. What is Ross Perlin but a freelancer, she asks, as if this would disqualify him from critiquing the way she makes a living.

Perlin has shifted the debate back to where it belongs, to a discussion of the value of labour. He argues that stakeholders should work in consort to ensure that if an internship is not genuinely educational then the internee shouldn’t be paid less than the minimum wage. Since studies repeatedly show that paying minimum rates doesn’t reduce the number of low-paid jobs, Perlin maintains the same would be true for interns. Employers who pay are more inclined to treat interns as investments, to be nurtured as any other kind. As for prospective interns, “You shouldn’t have to work for free to break into the white-collar world. To allow that is to devalue work, threaten jobs, and exclude the less privileged.” •

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Best seat: Audience members at WOMADelaide on 11 March 2013.
Photo copyright Sasha Pazeski, used with permission

Best seat: Audience members at WOMADelaide on 11 March 2013.
Photo copyright Sasha Pazeski, used with permission