Friday, June 21, 2013

Unpaid internships and downward mobility

So I have at long last read Ross Perlin's Intern Nation. What took me so long? Part of it was grad school's way of preventing me from keeping up with new non-fiction. Part was simply that Perlin, who I think says in the book he began researching the topic in 2008 (the book itself only came out last year), is not the one who alerted me to this issue. I was complaining about entry-level internships in 2006, for Gothamist which, I might add, allowed me to submit that post for exposure, but there was never any talk of compensation. I'm not sure it would have even occurred to me to ask (even though I knew the editor from school! what was I thinking?), which is its own sinkhole of a conversation.

But back to Perlin: I didn't have that uh-oh-what-if-someone-had-this-idea-before-I-did panic that can get me to a book or article ASAP. I didn't feel that I'd stepped on his turf, as it were. (Nor, of course, do I think he stepped on mine - ever since there have been unpaid internships, there have been people noting that this is perhaps not terribly fair. And slavery was abolished before any of us were born.) But I want to write more on this, and must get whatever education on it there is.

So Intern Nation is clearly the reference for this topic. Stats, yes, but also the full scope of the issue: the law (and with the lawsuits these days, that's important as background), the international scene, and the classification of burger-flipping jobs as "internships."

Its greatest strength - apart from collecting all that material in one place - is that it shouts from the rooftops that much - not all, but much - that's called an "internship" is a complete joke: "Bosses" in no position to offer you paid work or useful training, who aren't anything more than individuals wanting free personal assistance (Perlin of course references the "Kramerica" episode of "Seinfeld"), or who don't even know you're there (and alerting them to your presence would be too uppity and entitled) and thus can't give you a reference.

The pervasive belief that "internship" means something that leads to white-collar work leads young people and their parents to sacrifice in order to make this happen, yet to what end?

Which is what I still can't figure out after reading the book. Are unpaid interns on this separate and tough-to-exit track, amassing qualifications for ever-snazzier... unpaid internships, but self-defining as people not suited for compensated work? Do employers with actual jobs on offer - the ones who, as has been much-remarked-upon, demand three years' experience for entry-level - actually consider unpaid internships "experience"? Reports there are mixed.

It does start to look like a lot of unpaid internships exist in fields where you don't need them to get an entry-level job. And from Perlin's research, it kind of does look like connections can often get the fancier young people a never-ending series of internships but not a paying job. As in, just because there are unpaid hotel-housekeeping internships (thanks Moebius Stripper!) doesn't mean the field of hotel housekeeping has closed off to those who go straight to applying for jobs.

From what I've seen - including in Perlin's own book! - it seems entirely possible that unpaid internships are if anything an engine of downward social mobility, sending certain children of rich or middle-class families onto a dead-end track, yet not driving the entire economy to a halt, so clearly someone's working for pay.

The one counterargument I find (somewhat) persuasive is that they tilt certain fields (several of which were already that way, though) towards the rich. Regular journalism: not always thus. Government work: probably also not always thus. With both of these, a socioeconomic shift really is a big deal, and needs to be among the central arguments against unpaid internships. But fashion magazines? Art galleries? Publishing? Non-profits?

What could be happening - and commenter Fourtinefork may want to weigh in - is that the "trust-fund job" is something to which those from middle-class homes now aspire to - and the traditional "pin-money" jobs are now ones women (and some men) who fully expect to be self-supporting now take - but the Golden Age when one could support one's self on these incomes never was. There's a big difference between unpaid and underpaid in terms of self-worth, but maybe less so in terms of upward mobility.


fourtinefork said...

I'm curious if there is available data, adjusted for inflation, on salaries in fields like museums or publishing that, in the past, typically were held by people from stronger financial backgrounds. Are salaries actually lower now, or have they not kept up with increased housing and education costs? I don't actually know.

But, regardless, it'd be nice if all internships were paid, and it'd be even nicer if jobs also paid something that allowed for a decent standard of living based on the salary alone.
(For me, that would mean I could have a modest studio apartment on my own. And that my salary would qualify me--following NYC rent laws-- for that studio apartment, without a guarantor, because my parents don't make 80x the rent to qualify either. It's ridiculous that getting a job, at some place like the Met, which is extraordinarily difficult even for lower-level curatorial jobs, could still leave one in a place requiring outside support.)

Museums, for example, have been trying to "diversify" their staffs, too, with curatorial fellowships targeting candidates from specific underrepresented backgrounds. (The Walker Art Center had an advertisement for such a thing fairly recently, I think, but I've been seeing such listings for years.) But the salaries are still keyed to a world where someone else was paying your living expenses. I think the diversity fellowship paid something like $25K, which isn't bad, I guess, for Minneapolis, but not terribly great for something that requires a college degree. And if someone needed loans it becomes a lot less livable, and in the end, that first-generation college kid from the inner city maybe would have been better off, financially, with some sort of computer-related associate's degree from DeVry... But, then again, I suppose the logic is that if you pay your curatorial fellow a decent salary, then your permanent assistant curator, with many years of experience and an advanced degree, might also deserve a little more money, too.

I guess I should have gone into an HVAC-related job!

Phoebe said...


I think it's fine if not every desirable job provides a salary that leads to upward mobility. Also if there are certain jobs it's universally agreed-upon only exist for the wealthy. I mean, I don't hear anyone losing sleep over who gets to be a professional horseback rider. (Or maybe people are, but I'm so out of that loop I wouldn't know.)

But if there are industries where the higher-ups are well-paid, but there's just this bottom caste that isn't... and it's not because they aren't working, but because it's assumed they don't need the money, there there's a problem. Which is I think what happens in some of these fields.

Anyway, I don't have (but may at some point look for) data, but anecdotal evidence says that in the 1970s, it wasn't all that different. Unpaid didn't exist in the same way, but full-time arts jobs that didn't pay enough to live on absolutely did.

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