Softies such as Ross Perlin, the author of “Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy”, complain that unpaid internships are exploitative. They also fret that only well-heeled youngsters can afford to work for nothing. If an internship is the first rung on the career ladder, the less affluent will never climb it.Verso intern here, with generous post-Intern Nation wages. Of course, it's fitting for a news magazine to gloss over intern exploitation—O, to think of my comrades' gaunt, unpaid eyes as they factcheck or proofread against their self-interest—but when wholly discarding that little thing we know as class privilege, I don't know where to begin. Rent, food, and transport costs have pleasantly flown, notwithstanding the absence of personal income. Because hey, as The Economist reports, it seems you should do anything—even say, take out an intern loan, attendant with intern debt—to gain that valuable "experience:"
Others disagree [with Perlin]. “Anything that gives people an opportunity to gain experience is a good thing,” shrugs Jim Tapper of Korn/Ferry Whitehead Mann, a headhunter.Conclusions: Rent is high. Intern wages are low to nil. Now, what matter if some have more money than others? Everyone should intern because gaining experience is a good thing, as said with a shrug.
In a recent op-ed piece for the New Left Project, Ross Perlin traced the recent rise and evolution of the now all-too-familiar figure of the precariously employed worker. Beginning with the transformations of labour in the West over the last fifteen years, he offers a clear-sighted look at the "coming undone" and, by now, virtual disappearance of the traditional entry-level office employee and his career trajectory. In its place, he notes, employers have come to increasingly substitute various and varying forms of temporary pseudo-employment, all of which have become normalized over the years and quietly accepted both by workers as the norm, and by many recent grads as what to expect upon entering the workplace.
The 9-to-5 caricature-commuting, punching a time card, occupying a cubicle, navigating the office hierarchy, playing out a whole career in a single line of work at one or just a few firms-has been coming undone for years. The Baby Boomers, our parents, could afford to revolt against work. Many of them reacted, rightly, against the deep undercurrents of racism, sexism, environmental destruction, and conformism they associated with "standard employment". They could turn on, tune in, and drop out with reasonable certainty that jobs and careers would still be waiting for them.
"Why do we spend our lives living through them?" The words of the intelligent and frustrated housemaid, Elsie, in the Robert Altman film Gosford Park, remind us of the human potential locked away in the relationship between the British aristocracy and those who served them. Chained by poverty to a social class who both despised and resented them, generations of intelligent working people had their lives moulded by the comings-and-goings of their employers, with the personal lives of both becoming dangerously and unhappily intertwined.
As youth unemployment raises to well over 1 million, with little sign of a crest to that wave of misery, Tesco offer a chink of light. A dream job: a permanent placement (no pension) working nights (no sick pay) with training (30 hours per week). The wage? Nothing. But, if you don't take it, you're liable to have your benefits and job seekers allowance removed for up to 6 months.
Effectively, working 30 hours a week for your JSA will give you an hourly wage of £2.25 (or £1.78 p/h if you're one of the 1.04 million unemployed youth). Welcome to Workfare Britain.
From May to November last year over 24,000 jobseekers were forced to engage in Mandatory Work Activity (MWA), for 30 hours per week, providing participating corporations with hundreds of thousands of hours of free labour each week, according to the Guardian. There was also a high variance in ethnic minorities forced into unpaid labour, with 24% of those involved coming from ethnic minorities, as opposed to 13% on voluntary "work experience" schemes. Under MWA any recipient of Job Seekers Allowance (JSA) faces having their JSA stripped for 3 months for refusing the take part in the scheme, with a 6 month sanction for a second offence. Plans are currently underway to introduce a sanction for a third offence, meaning those who refuse to offer their labour for free will face being banned from claiming JSA for three years. There are plans afoot to implement a similar system for the long-term sick and disabled.
Does the predominance of unpaid internships offered to school and university leavers infantilise a generation of young adults? Does the increase in such roles contribute to the phenomenon of 'extended adolescence' - the growing trend of adults abstaining from settling down in a traditional sense, and living lives as perpetual teenagers?
Exploring these issues in the latest Psychologies magazine, Decca Aitkenhead asks the author of Intern Nation, Ross Perlin, his views on the social impact of the growing culture of exploitative internships.
"Internships in the traditional sense used to be something you would do in your Summer holidays while at school, but now they do them after they graduate and well into their twenties. And a third to half of all internships are unpaid, and the rest are not well paid."
Perlin goes on to concur with the sentiments expressed by Aitkenhead, and thinks that the increased use of interns as cheap labour providers can have a pronounced psychological impact.
..it's one of the factors that leads to this prolonged adolescence. I think we can consider it infantilising, because it means you cannot move into the stake-holder role in society that's traditionally been thought of as adulthood.
The article will appear in the September 2011 issue of Psychologies magazine (not yet available online).