Monday, May 22, 2006

Unpaid internships: a (long, repetitive) response to the responses

Much of the response to my Gothamist post about unpaid internships has been that the system is unfair to those whose parents are not well-off. This is undeniable, but was not the point of my post. It's also unfair that organizations, even for-profit ones, can now get people to do their offices' scut work for free, but again, not my point.

The problem with unpaid, post-college, full-time-work "internships" is that they warp the entire idea of what work is supposed to be, and alter the expectations of not just super-wealthy graduates, but also those whose parents allow them to live at home indefinitely while pursuing an unpaid career in their hometown (doable in any major city and for all I know some smaller towns as well). It used to be that only the very wealthiest college students imagined a post-college life of earning absolutely nothing; the advent of the respectable and seemingly inevitable unpaid internship has made it so that payment, even a minimum wage, begins to look like too much to ask for.

While in a way these internships could, indirectly, lead to a sort of social justice--wealthier families will become less so once parents' funds diminish from having to support their unpaid, file-clerk offspring--that's hardly the case. These internships are prerequisites to many forms of paid work, but moreover, this system turns much of the upper middle class of my generation into a caste of non-workers, of people who look upon with scorn any tasks done for the sake of getting paid.

Even those who have or seek paying jobs see those listings for often interesting-sounding positions which assure a fabulous job with one small caveat: no pay. I saw plenty such listings when looking for work after graduation, and while I sought out--and eventually got--paying work, I'd have to admit, after seeing enough listings for unpaid this or that, it starts to look normal. The fact that a job pays absolutely zilch becomes yet another minor setback, like "some administrative tasks." You're forced to remind yourself, "But wait, how will I ever move out of my parents' house/pay back loans/buy my own socks?" The job listings themselves cannot be relied upon to reveal just how absurd unpaid work really is--they just slip it in there, as though it's the most normal thing in the world for a job to pay nothing at all.

Commentor Jacob (for those potentially interested, no idea which Jacob) writes:

Nicely said. I'd only add that that there's something very sector-specific about this. I-banking doesn't run on this basis. But the newspaper, magazine, and book businesses do, as does most of Washington. (I'll bet that much of Hollywood does, too.)

This makes finance, like law, a possible route of real social mobility, while preserving, say, publishing, and much public service work, for those whose parents can afford to subsidize post-college years.

This is true, but what strikes me as bizarre isn't that some sectors pay more (and thus allow for more social mobility) than others, but that some sectors these days pay absolutely nothing to many of their adult, college-educated workers. Even parents who can afford to subsidize their childen's entire 20s, 30s, and so on might not wish to do so, nor do all but the most well-off young adults expect their families to support them well into adulthood. More glamorous industries outside of finance--journalism, publishing, or politics--are bound to pay less than i-banking, and on a more general level, the market will make it so that some work is valued more than other work, but even a low-paid job allows the worker a certain degree of independence; even a job paying below minimum wage gives a worker, if not enough to live on, still a sense that the work being done is worth something. That it's now perfectly normal for adults to work, unpaid, at various non-charity, non-student positions, that's a sign that something's amiss. That rich kids have it easier than poor kids ought to be addressed as well, but the freakishness of the unpaid internship phenomenon goes beyond its status as an example of social injustice, and thus needs to be looked at as more than yet another instance of the rich having it so good.

1 comment:

Jacob said...

(Yes, that Jacob.)

I agree with you, and should have emphasized the point differently. Jobs that have as a prerequisite entry-level a couple of years of completely unpaid work are, as your other commentators have noted, unavailable to those whose parents can't subsidize those years. It's not just, not even primarily, that finance or law top out higher than journalism or publishing that makes the former but not the latter routes for social mobility. It's that the latter start out at zero pay, which serves as a kind of class-gatekeeping.

Anyway, I understand that this wasn't your point-- just thought it was complementary. "Real" internships can't be a prerequisite for entry into a career, because there's a sharp upper limit on the number of real interns an organization can handle at once. Unpaid filing clerks who get called interns make possible a very different business model, one in which the unpaid-labor years really are a kind of prereq-- and one that's not self-limiting, because each new unpaid intern subtracts work from the paid staff (rather than, as in a good internship, adding to it).