Labouring the point

Young people wanting to break into the competitive market are increasingly expected to work for free as interns, says Ross Perlin

“The best thing about internships is that you can spin them.” So said a fellow intern of mine in London five years ago – before the Tories were auctioning them off, before firms of all shapes and sizes were using them to weather the recession, before unpaid intern Nicola Vetta had sued her employer for back wages and won. The world of internships was still a bit murky then – muddled by vague expectations, without any standards or rules of the road. Even the word intern served mostly as a kind of smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious positions that might once have been called volunteer, temp, summer job and so on.

Today interns are everywhere, in every major city and every white-collar field. They are college students working part time, recent graduates barely scraping by, even thirty-somethings changing careers, and – increasingly – just about any white-collar hopeful who can be hired on a temporary basis, for cheap or for free. They make xeroxes and shuttle lattes, to be sure, but they also pick fruit on organic farms, assist in funeral homes, research cures for cancer, help keep Parliament running, and staff football clubs (sometimes getting shot in the process, ahem, Ashley Cole). What was once a specialised term for medical apprenticeship in the US has become a global phenomenon, thanks to the spread of American business practices and the scramble to save on labour costs. When there are internship programs everywhere from Disney World to the Vatican, you know it’s gone mainstream.

So what? Imagine a UK where former interns reign supreme in politics, finance, and media, but also in fields like architecture, marketing, and hospitality. More than a third of all UK internships are completely unpaid while many of the others pay only a pittance. An overwhelming number are located in London and the South East, where rent and the cost of living are highest. A commission led by former cabinet member Alan Milburn found that the informal, unregulated nature of internships means that connections matter more than skills when it comes to landing one. With no one tracking, regulating, or working to improve internships, it’s no surprise that employers are doing whatever they can get away with – and that young people feel they have no choice but to go along. If the US, ground zero of the internship boom, is any example, more and more employers – even police forces, employment lawyers and small, traditional businesses – will catch internship fever.

The current internship system is rigged for the offspring of the well-to-do

At the same time, the current internship system is rigged for the offspring of the well-to-do, though many valiantly double down on student loans or take side jobs in order to work unpaid. The long-term results are just becoming apparent, as Nick Clegg clumsily highlighted earlier this month: a more unequal nation, where the most popular and influential professions have a significant barrier to entry. Young people need a way into the job market, but fair pay for an honest day’s work is the way to do it, or else short-term work experience focused on training – not ever-lengthening terms of unpaid and often unsupervised labour, regardless of whether the work is light or essential.

Young people may be spinning their internships, using positions of little monetary or educational value to get ahead, but internships have also taken us for a ride. We got our foot in the door and now it’s stuck there. A willingness to work for free has drastically eroded the regular job market, with entry-level jobs fast disappearing and unpaid opportunities replacing paid ones en masse. Youth unemployment hovers around a record high of 20 per cent across the developed world, even as the internship boom kicks into overdrive. According to the Association of Graduate Recruiters, the class of 2010 faced a job market in which there were 69 applications for every vacancy, the highest figure on record.

The negative legacy of chronic unemployment and delayed entry into adulthood and the workforce is at least as frightening as the emergence of an ex-intern elite. Welcome to the brave new economy of unpaid work. Now please make 100 copies of this, double-sided, stapled, both black and white and colour. Now.

Intern Nation by Ross Perlin is published by Verso

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