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The "relentless credentialing slog"— Anna Winter reviews Intern Nation for the Observer

Kaitlin Staudt16 May 2011

Anna Winter reviews Intern Nation by Ross Perlin for the Observer. Describing the book as a 'perspective study based on hard experience,' Winter focuses on how recent political focus on 'fairness' and social mobility is undermined by the institution of the internship, which promotes social injustice under the guise of widening opportunity:

The culture of unpaid work is troubling and complex but rarely subject to thorough scrutiny. American writer Ross Perlin's Intern Nation is a compelling investigation of a trend that threatens to destroy "what's left of the ordered world of training, hard work and fair compensation". With entry-level jobs disappearing and competition fierce, many young people slip into a "relentless credentialing slog", amassing internships in the hope that a resplendent CV, a testament to dedication, may unlock the door to that elusive prospect - the paid job. In the UK, "internship" once denoted a structured period of experience with a guaranteed stipend. As anyone who has recently tried interning knows, this is no longer the case ...

But the proliferation of internships has blurred any sense of meaning. As Perlin says, the word itself is a "smokescreen, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles". While "entire industries rely unabashedly on this source of free or cheap labour", the question of legality is obscured as hordes of graduates willingly accept their devalued positions. The Disney college scheme is a particularly disturbing example. Clouded in the rhetoric of dreams and make-believe, this megacorporation lures college students to do barely compensated "grunt work" with the promise of bogus "academic credit", undercutting its regular workers in the process.

Winter, who has been an intern at various newspapers and magazines, feels that Perlin's description of the internship period as a 'prolonged adolescence' is particularly apt:

Perlin's sociological insights are complemented by his personal experience of interning at a London NGO, working 300 hours without pay. His observations resonate. Financial circumstances dictate how long one can play the internship game. Like other interns Perlin describes, I too have used up all my savings in the absence of a salary. While my granny might have envisioned me putting down a deposit on a modest London property, I decided to put my stake in internships, hoping that they would be an investment for the future and bring security in the end. Every stint has involved a mixture of hope and despondency, a feeling of progress tempered by the frustration of not being able to become a "proper" adult. Perlin incisively documents this "prolonged adolescence" experienced by many interns.

This is not to say that all internships are worthless. It is possible to learn a lot and grow in confidence. But the dishing out of "little indignities and pointless errands" is often prevalent. Perlin gives many telling examples which ring true for a veteran intern. Having deigned to ask my name, the editor at one magazine then dispatched me to fetch her lunch (a joyless fat-free repast which I placed meekly on her desk, my mind seething with invective).

Full of restrained force and wit, this is a valuable book on a subject that demands attention. While the intern explosion is "symptomatic of a drastically unequal, hyper-competitive world in the making", Perlin has some hope for a more equal future with legal protection and improved rights for interns. Beyond legislation, an entire ethos must change to counter complicity in a system that is corrosive and unfair.

Visit the Observer to read the review in full.



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