Friday, January 04, 2013

More interns-and-housewives

OK, so make this reminder number I'm not sure how many, this week alone, that I need to pitch more articles. There's now a really great story in Dissent (where, during college, I was a paid intern), by Madeleine Schwartz, about interns and housewives, which brings in a gender dimension to all of this. I'd figured that more unpaid interns were female, but Schwartz brings some jarring data: "According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three in four unpaid interns were women." Yikes.

Anyway, kicking-myself aside, I really like Schwartz's point about the cheery passivity expected of unpaid interns and housewives:

Advice for interns usually stresses their need to be adaptable, as well as enthusiastic, submissive, and obedient. Common tips available on the Internet include that the intern “be a chameleon,” shifting his or her behavior to suit the current workplace. Another counsels constant apology: “I would suggest starting off [emails] with ‘Sorry to bother you’ the first few times.” Countless job descriptions repeat their demands: “flexible, energetic, creative, and enthusiastic”; “flexible, enthusiastic and highly motivated with a positive attitude”; “enthusiastic and flexible learners, capable of both taking direction and working independently.”
In my own analysis, which ends up amounting to more or less the same thing, but which I think adds a key piece otherwise missing... what connects interns and housewives is a popular belief that anyone (white, college-educated) working for no pay is by definition privileged. Certain unpaid workers are exploited - a Latino tomato-picker, for example, if he's not paid, this is a labor issue. And of course, slavery, although there, there's the involuntary as well as the unpaid.

But a college student or grad not getting paid for administrative work in a climate-controlled office, boo hoo. Also a woman who snagged a husband and doesn't now need to deal with the drudgery of the workplace - what interests Schwartz is household labor itself, but I'm thinking also of the work women who are not primary breadwinners do outside the home. What about the women whose looks-and-charm privilege weren't so extensive? Aren't they the ones we ought to care about? We view the troubles of the intern and housewife as the non-problems of people who don't need to work. Never mind that youth and marital status are precarious: that students - even ones who don't need to work while in school - will generally need to pay back loans or at the very least support themselves later on, or that breadwinners can leave, die, or abruptly announce a transition to Apatovian-protagonist sloth. Never mind that work deserves compensation.

The gender angle Schwartz brings to this issue might help us out of this mess, because it's clear that the absence of a certain form of privilege is what leads some but not others to take unpaid internships. But I'm not so optimistic. The spoiled early-20s girl - as represented by none other than Lena YPIS Dunham - is such a cliché at this point that it's going to be tough going, convincing anyone that these are workers in need of protections.

Indeed, the unpaid-internship problem is as intractable as it is precisely because we keep talking about how certain young people have the privilege of working for free. Rather than looking at unpaid work as a problem, we act as though it's a problem that not everyone gets a chance to sign up. This framing impacts our approach, and draws us to patchwork solutions like offering competitive scholarships for those who've already secured an unpaid internship, or making internships for college credit, thereby incorporating them into college, however that's being paid for.

Meanwhile, we could say, look, of course life is easier for young adults who can afford not to work than for those who do. But once unpaid internships cease to exist only as a way to give socialites and rock-stars' offspring a wholesome-sounding activity, once they come to replace jobs, they themselves are the problem. Again, it's not that unequal access to unpaid internships isn't a problem. But the deeper problem, as well as the one that might be easier to solve, is that they exist in the first place.

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