Tuesday, May 08, 2012


College graduates, recent and not-so-recent, take unpaid internships. As that first episode of "Girls" demonstrated so elegantly, we're not sure whether to blame the entitled, bratty youth who think they're too good for a real job, or the system that has redefined much of what used to be paid work as valuable learning experiences, as networking opportunities for which a young (or not-so-young) person must express gratitude, and nothing mars an expression of gratitude like bringing up crass concerns like the need for rent money or health insurance. Paid work becomes this elusive thing, available if you're willing to scrub toilets for a living, or, under more glamorous/sanitary conditions, if you've successfully completed a few dozen internships and/or pricey graduate programs.

The obvious alternative to unpaid arts-and-letters-ish internships is the humanities doctoral program. And we the graduate students remember this, when it's suggested to us that we might have simply taken a job in journalismbookpublishingetc. The "job" would have been a series of unpaid internships, with perhaps a sprinkling of debt from a journalism MA or an MFA on top. The lucky few ultimately land that great if low-paid writing-and-editing job. But the lucky few also get tenure; the lucky few law students are top students at top schools; the lucky few humanities majors double-majored in Engineering and Assorted Usefulness and have their own highly-profitable plumbing start-ups. If you're going to be a heap of not-so-marketable skills, it's perhaps better to be paid and have health insurance in the mean time. Perhaps, but if you get a PhD, this means you will end up on welfare. Or have a less than 2% chance of doing so - same thing. Doom. Once again, we're unsure whether the blame lies with single parents who think medieval history pays the bills, or...

-It's one thing if the demand for X has dropped. It's another if the demand is there, but the pay is not. Sure, demand for medieval-history experts might hover around nil, but demand for college history/writing instructors is not. Along the same lines, unpaid interns doing the work of entry-level or admin staff can't precisely be said to be doing work for which there's no demand. They're not getting paid for structural reasons. Meaning, it has become acceptable to ask for certain kinds of work in exchange for no pay. If humanities-types were simply sitting around pondering the meaning of life, "finding themselves" in Thailand or South America, and lo and behold not receiving compensation, we might call them entitled or foolish. But if services are being rendered?

-What changed? Paradoxically, what changed is that a lot of people who actually need/expect an income are entering fields that used to be for dabblers with family money. Just as a shift towards more and more kids going to college has coincided with college now costing more than ever, an influx in various never-exactly-high-paid careers of hordes without a parental manse has been accompanied by work-with-little-to-no-pay in various incarnations.

-As fields get super-competitive, one go-around is to announce your willingness to work for no pay. Or, more accurately, as genuine massive-trust-fund-havers are few and far between, it's to announce your willingness to subsidize your children until age who knows. The number of parents able to contribute something to their adult children's lives is not insignificant, not limited to those who come across as "rich."  While it's tough to/tempting not to fault individual families for making these choices, this explains $4,000 two-bedrooms shared by college-educated roommates each of whom earn, if anything, $11k.

-Also paradoxically, this pool of young people who need the money, or who have parental assistance that might cease at any time (again, "Girls," or the many, many college students whose parents can and will help financially up to but not a day after the BA is conferred) are perhaps more willing to fight for scraps, scraps such as nebulous "prestige" or "opportunity" that might never materialize into anything, well, material. And we've for a variety of reasons - Groucho Marxist, would-be-aristocratic, sadly realistic - come to believe that anything that would pay you money to do something is probably the less prestigious alternative, the worse option in the long run. A post-doc that charges a fee to apply must have something really special to offer. The college that offers you a full ride is desperate - better to go into debt at the one that didn't. If choosing between two magazine internships, keep in mind that the one that feels it must offer you financial compensation probably can't offer you the same rank of experience. An internship with a lot of coffee-fetching suggests the person whose coffee is to be fetched is important, that the coffee-fetching is important, and more so than reading manuscripts or styling shoots or something would be at another company.

While these "opportunities" are, as has been endlessly discussed and as is universally understood, more readily available to those without bills to pay, these calculations about future utility of theoretically-temporary entry-level "work" are only going to be made by young people who do expect careers for themselves in the future. While a kid with a trust fund and no real ambition, or a content housewife of a rich dude, looking for something to keep busy with once the kids are in school, might settle into a low-salary line of work, and only end up truly unpaid if volunteering in the traditional sense of for a charity, someone not so set in life will have reason to accept scraps, under the above-explained circumstances, with the hopes of returns.

-The point of the above is that structural forces - and not (just) a straightforward market worthlessness of humanities-ish skills in This Technological Age - are keeping entry-level-loosely-defined pay down. Way down, sometimes at zero or lower.


Britta said...

See, I would say the opposite: anything that pays you is automatically more prestigious than something you pay for. Like, being paid to do sit contemplating yourself in Costa Rica >>>> paying for yourself to contemplate. This of course gets back to the rarity, in that the number of people people with money are willing to fund is much lower than the number of people willing to do something arty.

I also thought this whole intern thing was an exaggeration, but I've found out my sister, who is a literary agent, has her own rotating door of unpaid college interns, the last one who was, true to cliche, a theater studies major at Brown.

Phoebe said...


"Like, being paid to do sit contemplating yourself in Costa Rica >>>> paying for yourself to contemplate."

It's not that that's never the case. Fulbright > indulgent parents, fair enough. But consider, to stick with the Costa Rica example, someone choosing to go on Obscure U's dime, or via a (reportedly) competitive program (MA, etc.) from a possibly bigger-name school, but you'll need to borrow/already have your own funds. Remove the open-admissions angle (the reason the Fulbright > the vacation) and, when choosing between two that-which-you've-applied-fors, the one that doesn't pay either does or, by virtue of it not paying, seems to be more elite.

Consider also - and this is the more obvious, everyday example, one I ought to have included in the post - that when entry-level work started to be unpaid, the job title also changed from "secretary"/"administrative assistant/mailroom" to "intern," the latter being... more prestigious-sounding. The former (well, maybe not "mailroom") suggests a job held by a 55-year-old woman, working-class, who's had the job for over 30 years. The latter, a bright young thing who's going places. Yet they're the same job, they both allow a new arrival to make contacts, yet in exchange for the illusion of being on a pre-professional track, an "intern" will do the work for no pay.

Phoebe said...


I forgot to mention the really pertinent example of this phenomenon, which is that so many PhDs/ABDs will choose to be perma-adjuncts with incredibly low wages and no benefits, over being high school teachers. Colleges can get away with it because the status of "professor" sounds better, and sounds like you're making the most of an advanced degree... even if the end result is, either way you're teaching 18-year-olds and not doing (much) research, and living-standards-wise, high school is the obvious choice.