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Slaves to the Wage? Ross Perlin's Intern Nation reviewed in the Guardian and the Times

Kaitlin Staudt 9 May 2011

Andy Beckett reviews Intern Nation by Ross Perlin for the Guardian, describing the book as "a portrait of how white-collar work is changing ... thought-provoking and at times jaw-dropping – almost a companion volume to Naomi Klein's celebrated 2000 exposé of modern sweatshops, No Logo."

Citing the Mail on Sunday story that reported how the Conservatives' auctioned off a selection of prestigious internships for between £2,000 and £4,000 pounds as the beginning of media interest in the divisive world of internships, Beckett suggests that the internship boom has since become a significant British political issue:

[S]trikingly, almost everyone involved in the controversy seems to agree on one thing: that a few days' vaguely defined work as an intern is now a crucial early building block for a desirable, decades-long white-collar career. As Ross Perlin puts it in this timely and clear-sighted book, the first on the internship boom, "In much of the developed world, the subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now simply part of being young ..."

Perlin's energetic exploration of this world is mostly confined to America, with a few British detours, but the questions he asks are profound and wide-ranging. Why has there been such an explosion of them? What exactly are the social implications of their "curious blend of privilege and exploitation"? And, most interestingly perhaps, what does the intern boom tell us about the modern workplace and modern capitalism?

Exploring a range of companies from Disney to a solar panel company in Oregon, Perlin suggests that the social consequences of internships are highest in politics, law and entertainment:

This book is important because Perlin has spotted that the internship phenomenon is a symptom of broader changes in business and the psyche of the middle-class worker. The increasingly entrepreneurial mindset of young professionals, seeing themselves as brands that require investment, such as unpaid work, to get established; the assumption of most companies that, executive salaries aside, labour costs should be ruthlessly minimised; the vogue for things being given away or done for "free", in business strategies and even political programmes such as Cameron's Big Society - all these trends may make the internship the quintessential modern workplace experience.

Yet the social costs are considerable. Besides the exploitation, boredom and cynicism that blight many internships - trying to look busy for days on end in return for a line on your CV - there is also their infantilising quality. Perlin interviews many serial interns: deep into their 20s, and already burdened with debts from university, they are still not earning, still without a solid career trajectory, still living with their parents, still only semi-adult. The steep rise in youth unemployment across the world since the financial crisis has made the job prospects of these perpetual interns even worse.

The Times' Kaya Burgess also sees Perlin's book as part of a gloabl debate about social mobility and as part of a British obsession with class and fairnss. In an interview, Perlin says:

"The question of social mobility has been much more important in the UK ... There is a really visceral reaction about fairness and nepotism in the UK - a reaction that is much less developed in the US, where there's simply a "sink or swim" mentality. In the US, the concern is more with exploitation and that interns shoud be paid, acknowledged, protected against sexual harassment: treated as workers, essentially ... The fact that a major politician, in Nick Clegg, is speaking up and establishing that something is wrong in principle with the internship system is a big deal ...

"I would speculate that the days of piling up a lot of good-sounding things on your resume might be coming to a close ... The recent discussion in the UK has gone in a different direction from [that] in the US. The UK is always fascinating because it is torn between a very American-style free market, while also still having a much more substantial social safety net. When you are competing for jobs during a recession, the only thing worse than being exploited can be not being exploited. Yes, many internships are really crummy, but then some of them do ultimately lead to something ... which is why, when people have no access to internships at all, it makes them invisible."

Visit the Guardian to read the review in full.

The Times article is available on-line behind their paywall.

Filed under: interviews, reviews