Are interns destroying the value we place in work? Can we increase social mobility by reforming work experience? Or should they just be abolished?
Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, joins Aditya Chakrabortty to discuss the impact of paid and unpaid internships on our economy. Also in the studio are Heather Stewart, the Observer's economics editor, and - a week into his own work experience at the Guardian - Christian Eriksson.
Aditya Chakrabortty: Who is excluded in intern culture?
Ross Perlin: First off, those who don't attend university to begin with are almost completely excluded, or those who don't go to better known universities, with the resources, with the kind of name brand that allows people to go out and land an internship. So first off, you have all those people who are effectively consigned then to the blue collar world as internships become the gateway to the white collar workforce. And with the white collar work force being the sort of sight of high paying influential jobs in a service based economy, this is a serious problem.
But then even at another level, with in those who do attend university, there is a real division between people... who can do this for a brief period of time, but then as soon as their student loans run out, or they're out of school, they have to move on and find paying work. So, as you see the rise of postgraduate internships, as you see people doing this during gap years, or while they kind of tread water while they're waiting for a regular job to materialize, those people are much more likely to come from well-heeled backgrounds. Or to be making a significant sacrifice working on the side, bartending evenings, doubling down on student loans, going deeper into debt, which will cause problems later on. So you see a significant number of people excluded. In the US I can say, you are really talking about 70-80 % of young people who really can not do any kind of work experience.
Why don't they just choose something else?
Arguably the youth labour market and internships send a certain message about the supply and demand in the workforce. You could say that people should just accept those messages and say "well I came from a working class background therefore the media is not for me. I won't be able to work unpaid; I won't be able to do that sort of thing." But we as a society need to consider what the larger effect of that is. We're going to have a much narrower range of voices that we hear in the media, for instance, if we exclude people from those backgrounds...
We tell people that you can do whatever you want when you grow up, especially in the US, this is something that is always told to people growing up, dream big, do whatever you want. If we want to go back on that, we would effectively be telling people ‘your father was in construction, so you should be in construction as well.
Why would you go in for cruddy work for free in industries where you're not guaranteed a place?
Education still represents in some ways the kind of elephant in the room. A measure surrounding internships without addressing education is kind of piffling because much more debt of course is accrued while going through one's education. Earnings are deferred, in theory, while one is in school. So, it's true that one can try to avoid all of those professions where unpaid internships stand as a barrier to entry, but increasingly, that means avoiding a whole huge sector of work. A huge area of white collar work... also things like public relations and marketing, increasingly a whole range of fields. We're sending them a signal "don't go here unless you can afford to pay to play."
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