Book review: Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy by Ross Perlin
Not since Monica Lewinsky has the intern received as much attention as in recent months. Since the practise of auctioning off prestigious internships to the highest bidders at the Conservative Ball became public knowledge and David Cameron admitted that he is ‘very relaxed’ about giving his friend’s son an internship, Nick Clegg has waged a stagey and rather anaemic war against the toffs, saying “For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected”. And he should know because he was one himself.
Groups like Carrotworkers’ Collective and Intern Aware are keen to draw attention to the plight of the intern and some commentators have called the unpaid internship boom “monstrous exploitation” while others see it as a challenge, which graduates should rise to rather than whinge about. Unpaid labour and precarious labour are nothing new and in its broadest definition everything from prison systems to web content relies upon it, but in recent years it has become such a norm in white collar professions and in university education, with its insatiable logic extending, multiplying and normalising itself, that it has started to look absurd even to interns themselves. Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy is not going to turn young careerists into revolutionaries but it will provide informed and thoughtful analysis of the phenomenon, often with startling statistics and real insight.
Of the 9.5 million students attending four-year university programs in the US, around 75% undertake at least one internship after graduation. Disneyworld’s boot camp style internship program, an inexplicably popular choice among these students, saves hundreds of millions in would-be labour costs. In 2006 alone it saved $20 million and as a knock on effect, $23.4 million was lost in the local economy of Orange and Osceola counties through job losses, depressed wages and lower tax receipts. It is estimated that around 50% of internships in the US are unpaid, with more accurate figures of 51% in Germany and 37% in the UK. Tracing the history of the rise of the internship and the decline of the apprenticeship, Perlin shows the stark drop in the value of labour that has accompanied the glamorisation and increased precarity of youth labour in seemingly unrelated professions. For example, in 1976, 57% of TV and 81% of radio interns got paid; by 1991 those numbers had shrunk to 21% and 32% respectively.
In Ireland there has yet to be a comprehensive study of the phenomenon or a legal framework put in place to specifically deal with interns but ICTU’s Esther Lynch called the internship boom a “worrying trend”. She urged interns to come forward, citing a claim taken by an intern in Ireland against his employers in which the man, who was from Mauritius, showed that he was doing exactly the same work as his colleagues but was working for free and was not given an opportunity to advance to paid employment. He won the case and kept his job, with the full pay and benefits of his colleagues. Based on the International Labour Organisation’s legislation the intern was able to prove that his work was of benefit to his employer and that it could no longer be described as “training”. Perlin also cites legal cases made and won in the US on the grounds of unpaid interns doing profitable work for free. However, with the second highest unemployment rate in the EU and an economy dependant on the whim of global capital, this litigious approach to precarious labour falls short of dealing with the problem.
It is not just young graduates and white-collar professionals who have been affected. Work practices normalised in this area of the economy have trickled down so that jobs like window cleaning, forklift operating, town planning and working as a shop assistant now openly demand an internship period, often months long, through the government work agency, FÁS. During the recession the Irish government has been deeply complicit in this degradation of labour value through its creation of thousands of internship places in lieu of real and viable job opportunities. This allows them to give middle class voters their pound of flesh by forcing the unemployed off the couch and give the appearance of offering solutions to an unemployment problem that is demonstrably getting worse under austerity measures.
In the London Review of Books, Andrew Ross called the internship phenomenon “a capitalist’s dream” but interestingly Perlin doesn’t attack the heads of corporations, but the heads of universities. He considers them to be much more influential in the rise of precarious unpaid youth labour, which is motivated by a cynical calculation that the outsourcing of education while students are still paying fees is quite a substantial money spinner.
“In response to a roiling debate over unpaid internships, no business lobbyists were seen trying to pre-empt normal enforcement of the law. Instead it was a group of thirteen university presidents who recently wrote to the Department of Labour, complaining that protecting interns might get in the way of their brisk trade in academic credit and their cosy employer relationships.”
It was the academy and liberal ideas that grew out of the academy in the 60s and 70s, he claims, which “helped to prepare the cocktail of ideological motivations, justifications, and half-hearted excuses behind the internship boom”.
Throughout the Celtic Tiger, Irish universities sold exactly the same dream as everything else in the boom economy. A Dublin City University ad campaign boasted “you can go anywhere from here”. Today, with bus routes to universities being cut and student unions not bothered to do anything about it, students are likely to find their ability to “go anywhere from here” increasingly hindered. With graduate emigration constantly rising, many graduates are in fact forced to “go anywhere”; anywhere but here, that is. To a generation of young people whose parents may not have attained a leaving cert let alone a degree, who found themselves educated and full of prospects, in a prolonged adolescence without the traditional expectations of marriage and family, a kind of cultural snobbery about work practices set in. It was in this potentially radical space, the university, and among this potentially radical group, individuals with more freedom and flexibility than any other Irish generation before them, who had rejected the values and work practices of their parents that this dream was bought into without question. Today it is this demographic who find themselves stapling things for successful people for free, with the prospect of real work slipping further and further away.
Perlin’s book opens up a vital debate and he has given us some hard facts to work with, but the feeble Cameron-Clegg dichotomy is likely to continue to characterise, and even shape, public discourse on the intern boom on this side of the Atlantic. Clegg’s Victorian approach to “the poor”, enabling “young people from disadvantaged backgrounds” to do internships while unemployment continues to rise merely patches up the problem and creates a slightly more diverse but ever-growing bottleneck of young people being trained in professions in which they will simply never find work. The idea that “letting” a more diverse group do internships means that you’ll get a more diverse elite is glaringly incorrect even on its own shallow terms. 77% of interns are female according to Perlin but the elite professions that avail of their free labour remain overwhelmingly male.
The internship question should not be reduced to these petty terms or exclusively to law and economics, which Perlin primarily looks to. No amount of fairness legislation is going to bring jobs back. Graduates and young people have to ask themselves if they have anything other than short-term individual self-interest to offer to this debate. If the economy recovers and jobs for a larger proportion of young white-collar professionals return, will the debate disappear until the next downturn? These graduates are not looking back fondly to Keynes or Ford because they know that if you take the gamble and win, the kind of flexible work practices and cultural capital that internships promise are a dream come true.
The logic of the approach of Clegg, Perlin and the intern lobby groups is based ultimately on faith in meritocracy and upward mobility, which would eventually lead, if taken to its logical conclusion, to a global economy in which nobody made anything useful ever again. If we can all be flexible, self-actualised and upwardly mobile workers in an immaterial economy, then the end point of this dream would seem to be a world populated by six billion people sending spam to each other from a café in South America. To borrow a horribly chirpy knowledge economy sentiment, let’s see this as an opportunity to imagine something more than state equality schemes, legislation and keeping our fingers crossed for an upturn and let’s start with an optimistic and aspirational public debate about what we really want the future of work to look like.
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