Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Of interns and housewives

It's abundantly clear that the rise of unpaid internships is bad for those who need to work. But it's surprisingly tough to convey why they're a problem even for those privileged enough to be in a position to take one. And that's a message that needs to get across, because a protest on behalf of those who aren't about to take unpaid internships anyway doesn't seem to be getting anywhere.

But it's not self-evident, because of our YPIS ("your privilege is showing") mindset. Rather than thinking it's pathetic that a college-educated 27-year-old is in a position to think he should be asking his parents to pay for him to go work at a job, we focus on the privilege angle. We frame it as, kids who don't need to work, and who can access whatever leg up an internship might (key word: might) provide should be grateful.

And this is fair. In a society without much of a safety net, anyone who isn't a paycheck away from misery is, well, privileged. The point of this post isn't to detract from that, or to claim that it's somehow worse to be an unpaid intern at the firm of your choice, with no money worries, than to be trying to pay off loans while the best job you can get is part-time at McDonalds. (For readers who need to situate the author, I've never experienced either extreme, and have never been an unpaid intern.)

To understand why setting up a norm of unpaid work is a problem even for those who don't face destitution, consider the position of a mid-century wife of a man who made enough that she would not need to work to avoid being on the street. Employers back in the day justified paying women less for the same work because a woman's income was presumed to be supplemental. Feminists didn't like this arrangement, and not only because of its negative impact on unmarried women and those who, however low-paid, still out-earned their husbands. While wives who didn't need to work were 'privileged,' they were also dependents. If their husbands left, they were were screwed. But even if their husbands stayed put, this financial arrangement impacted women's sense of self-worth, in and out of their marriages.

Yes, second-wave feminism stands accused of having focused too much on the plight of the privileged (white, straight, married, at-least-middle-class) woman. But that doesn't mean the plight was a figment of their imagination, or that the way to achieve social justice would have been to keep such women from earning substantial incomes of their own. We intuitively get that financial dependence along traditional gender lines can (doesn't always, Ann Romney, doesn't always) lead to misery, even if not of a kicked-to-the-curb-with-no-source-of-income variety. Today, a woman with a high-earning husband who nevertheless also has a job of her own is certainly not not respected for choosing to work. If anything, we admire the wives of incredibly high-earning men who are professionals in their own right. No one praises Ann Romney for nobly refusing to 'steal' a job from someone who needed it more, which is to say from just about anyone.

The problem with the rise of the unpaid internship is that it puts young adults in much the place of girdle-era wives looking to work outside the home.* It defines as uppity and entitled any youngish adult who works in order to have independence, and who demands a paycheck merely to be fairly compensated for their work, but who has some alternative (be that living in splendor in an apt. their parents pay for or living in the basement at home) to living off his own wages. It has a negative impact on youngish** as a caste, and incentivizes dependency.

*What analogy is perfect?
**What is "youngish"? In looking things up for a somewhat different and - yes, you can thank me - much longer and now-scrapped version of this post, I found that law schools' financial aid depts. take into account the finances of an applicant's parents if the applicant is under 30. 30!

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