Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Pity the unpaid intern

Sometimes a news story appears that just screams of 'first world problems,' but that, upon further examination, reveals itself to be about a legitimate grievance, albeit one affecting people who do not live in Darfur. One was the issue of college students receiving low-cost birth control. Once you remove from your mind the image of a freshly-manicured sophomore who owns 300 pairs of Uggs but won't pay for the Pills her frathouse hookups require and replace it with an understanding of the many socioeconomic and romantic situations of college students, the terms of the debate start to shift.

The latest such first-world-problem-that-isn't is an ironic, mocking, clever-sounding but poorly-thought-out post on Gawker (Redundant? Not that I don't read Gawker...) poking fun at white media-interns who find it unfair that students of color get paid for the very same internships they do for free. If the 'boo hoo' tone weren't clear enough, the post is accompanied by what I believe is a still from a reality TV show of a superrich blonde intern shedding a single tear. (That I know this from blogs and not having seen the TV show itself makes my knowing this no less embarrassing.)

Well, allow me to make the archconservative suggestion that, assuming an internship is work and neither a class nor for charity, all interns require monetary compensation. Notice I make no argument as to how much race should be considered in hiring interns in the first place--that's another matter. (Notice also that I do not verify rumors of who gets paid what at fashion magazines--I have no idea, having never worked at one.) But that Moe at Gawker thinks an intern is whiny for demanding payment just goes to show how well the unpaid-internship cabal has got us hypnotized. It is not douchey or money-grubbing to demand that your work be compensated with kesef, even if said argent is for your beer or leggings-as-pants or whatever it is college kids today find exciting. That you 'learned valuable skills' from your internship does not negate the possibility that what you did was in fact work; on-the-job training is a very real phenomenon.

18 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

Shameless prior-post-plug: I'm of the opinion that many of those unpaid internships are also illegal.

Withywindle said...

The point of being unpaid is to limit membership to the wealthy classes. Paying darker-skinned folks is meant to make the wealthy classes feel good about themselves by adding token outsiders to these elite professions. Making internships paid would merely displace the elites to some other profession, or require them to come up with some new credentialing process to achieve the same effect.

Phoebe said...

Paul: Shameless or not, I like your post, as well as the SWPL one linked to in the comments.

Withywindle: There's elite and there's elite. There will always be a select few who truly don't have to work, ever, but that doesn't encompass the whole population the unpaid internship targets. Anyone not so poor as to need to work at 19 in order to feed his family (i.e. not just the superrich) is asked, under the current system, to think of unpaid work as normal. Meaning, the class of young people who used to take summer jobs for pocket money now take some mix of unpaid work and paid work to pay for it.

withywindle said...

"The class of young people who used to take summer jobs for pocket money" works by me as a definition of elite.

Phoebe said...

And here I was thinking the summer job was the quintessential middle-class American institution. Its loss is certainly mourned as the loss of something all-American. In the traditional narrative of summer work, the very poor work as teens out of need (if they can find work, that is), the very rich feel no need to work and thus attend charity balls instead, while those in the middle work because if they don't, their parents will feed and house them but nothing more. Again, I'm talking about what people have to do at 18 or 19; those whose families can afford to house and feed them onto the next generation are, of course, another story. In other words, I think defining all but the poorest of Americans as 'elite' gets us nowhere.

Withywindle said...

There have been news articles about the decline of the summer job over the last few decades; much fewer well-off teens, even moderately well-off teens, work anymore. They take summer classes, volunteer in ways that look good on their college transcripts, go on summer trips--yea, to Europe--but the default assumption that they will work no longer holds. It's now folk memory, not reportage. As for the size of this elite? -- I suspect no more than a quarter of Americans. Large enough that they think of themselves as "broadly middle class"; small enough that the majority of Americans regards them as distinctly privileged. And, yes, I do think the large majority of people in such internships fall into this elite, which is no less elite for being fairly large.

Will121 said...

The top quarter at its low end includes people 25% away from the mean. A standard deviation (for normally distributed samples) is around 34% of the population on either side of the mean. This means that slightly more than a third of “the elite” under your definition fall within one standard deviation of the mean. I think that’s enough to conclude that an elite cut off of top 25% is highly problematic. It think something more like the top 5% is a more useful category, but even then you would be talking mostly about people who don’t live lives that look like what people think of when they use the word elite in normal conversation.

Moving back to the main topic of Phoebe’s original post, I would note that not all jobs are turning into unpaid internships. In jobs where it is A) very important to have the best people or B) quickly apparent to the client / end user if someone screws something up, it seems like summer jobs still pay.

Phoebe said...

Will121: Agreed re: the need to reserve "elite" for that which refers to a select few, not huge swaths of the population.

As for A&B: I'm not sure what it means for a job to require "the best people." Even unpaid internships are, surprisingly, often quite competitive. The way things work in magazine journalism, my guess is that many prospective applicants would find a job that paid a reasonable amount suspicious--if other places can get the best people for free, what's wrong with this one place that it thinks has to feed its interns?

Although clearly no one's an unpaid banking intern, it would be interesting to track how unpaid work went from genuine volunteer work to any glamorous field to all sorts of industries that can basically get away with it. And finally, if "best" means not the best minds but the best-dressed, the best young girls to appear at magazine functions, and so on, *not* paying is probably the way to go. Which should address, if not answer, point A.

As for point B, this makes sense. There are clearly internships that are more decorative, that are basically hanging around an office and fetching coffee, where the actual work of the intern hardly matters. Still, I'm assuming the stakes are different in different fields. In, say, a bank, a screw-up means a loss of some huge amount of money. But in fields with unpaid interns, even the paid workers tend to be dealing with lower figures, and an intern error might lead to a typo or to a Chanel dress not arriving somewhere on time. Even if the error is immediately apparent and the intern is at fault, the world will not collapse.

Andrew Stevens said...

Phoebe was the first one to mention elite. Withywindle originally referred to them as the "wealthy classes." Personally I think top 20-25% counts as "wealthy classes." (I'm in that group myself, but I grew up too poor to consider myself now anything but rich.) I realize Barack Obama classified all households under $250,000 a year as middle class, which conveniently just includes his own household before he made millions on his books, but only 1.5% of the households in the U.S. make that much money. This is clearly too broad a definition. E.g. nobody I grew up with could have afforded to take an unpaid internship.

And, indeed, I think Withywindle may be onto something, except I don't think there's any sort of conspiracy. Fact is, the children of the upper classes (with the not as stringent definition of upper classes that Withywindle has been using) are mostly the ones who go into jobs like journalism. Since they can afford to take unpaid internships, competitive pressure drives the pay down to zero.

Certainly, the internships where I work pay about $25 an hour (they are hourly positions and no real benefits, of course), but nobody would do internships unpaid in my field. (I never did an internship at all and it didn't hurt me much when finding my first job.)

Phoebe said...

I was first to mention elite? I just looked--I think it was Withywindle.

As for who can and can't afford unpaid internships, we'd need to know how many people take on paying jobs in order to pay for them. It's clear that of the subset of people who can't afford to take these positions, some do anyway.

But, to return to the original point: for moral and perhaps legal reasons, no job's pay should be "zero," even if there are many people willing to take the job at no pay.

Andrew Stevens said...

Oops, sorry, you're correct. He mentioned "elite professions," though there I think he wasn't quite correct. Elite professions do not generally have unpaid internships.

My comments were value-neutral and purely descriptive. I can't honestly say I have any opinion on the morality of unpaid internships. Probably because I agree with Withywindle that the people doing these internships are hardly being oppressed. Withywindle may be correct that the effect is to chase out the genuinely oppressed to other professions, I suppose, though I doubt a lot of that happens.

Just out of curiosity, is volunteer work morally problematic? When I helped with flooding problems this summer, should the city government have been forced to pay me?

Stuff White People Like has an excellent article on this phenomenon. Best line: "When all is said and done, the internship process serves the white community in many ways. First, it helps to train the next generation of freelance writers, museum curators, and director’s assistants. But more importantly, internships teach white children how to complain about being poor."

Andrew Stevens said...

Will121, income isn't normally distributed. Empirical studies indicate that it is probably a lognormal distribution. Lognormal distributions are skewed right and thus have a greater percentage of people in the right tail than normal distributions do (and fewer in the left tail). This is obvious when you think about it. There are people who make $100,000 a year more than the mean, far more than people who make $100,000 less than the mean (i.e. a negative income). (This is why economists often talk about the median income, rather than the mean income. In a normal distribution, the two are the same, but they clearly aren't in income.) So the distribution can't be normal and lognormal is an excellent guess (and turns out to be roughly correct). It is not, therefore, clear to me that top 20-25% is an unfair figure, though I haven't actually graphed the income distribution function so I can't tell you where the tail begins.

Anonymous said...

Poor little rich girl.

Phoebe said...

In terms of cultural capital, I'll accept the accusation.

Will121 said...

Phoebe,

To clarify what I meant when I said “the best people,” I was just getting at the fact that there are a lot of very smart very talented people who don’t have enough money to work for free. There are also plenty of very smart very talented people who do have the money to work for free, but it is almost certainly a smaller pool. If picking the top people from the talented rich people is good enough for your company, you can offer an unpaid internship. But if you need the most talented people (rather than talented enough) then you will want to draw from the biggest pool possible, which means including the people who are smart but not rich. The way you include them is to make the job pay.

Phoebe said...

Will121: That much made sense from your original comment. The issue is that in certain fields, even the most exclusive internships are unpaid, the assumption being either a) that even those who can't work for free will find night jobs if necessary, or b) that something about being 'best' for a given job in fact favors being wealthy, as with some fashion jobs where one is expected to arrive on day one looking the part. Each field and each firm looks for something different, so the best young consultant is useless to a party-planning firm.

Or, let me explain another way: under normal circumstances, the more a company wants someone, the more pay the offer; in unpaid-internship-land, the very fact that a position is unpaid connotes exclusivity. The assumption goes, the position must be amazing if people are fighting for it despite a known lack of pay. We've gotten used to the idea of competing for college admissions, that is, competing for the opportunity to pay an institution; the unpaid internship takes its inspiration from that model.

PG said...

Is the amount of pay relevant? I suppose it would have to be at least minimum wage once any pay at all is offered. Certainly people will fight for some jobs that are very poorly paid; Teach for America only takes 10% of applicants, who are signing up to make a salary that, if they have even one dependent would qualify them for some welfare benefits, to work in poor facilities, in poor neighborhoods, to acquire a skill (teaching ability) that isn't all that well-paid anyway.

Casey said...

Look at the jobs now being replaced by internships:
Secretary - Business Intern, Data Entry - Intern, Political Staff - Political Science Intern, Paralegal - Law Intern... your telling me firing interns and paying people for these jobs wouldn't lower unemployment... of course it would, it's part of what raised unemployment.