No-Wage Slaves

The peculiar economics of internships

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At the time, it didn't seem outrageous. In fact, nabbing my first internship seemed a savvy career move, a way to make connections and get my feet wet. Now that I've finally escaped from intern hell (four unpaid gigs later), I can see that I was a willing partner in a growing slave economy. I was an exploited worker, and I didn't even know it. But now that I do, I can't seem to get anyone to feel sorry for me.

Truth is, it's hard to work up much sympathy for the exploited intern class. Largely upper-middle class, college and even graduate-school educated, interns often beat out hundreds of their peers for the honor of holding unpaid grunt positions. Typically, they depend on the kindness of their parents, for a place to live and/or an allowance. The less financially fortunate work nights and weekends figuring they'll have time to sleep when the internship ends. Clearly, interning is not recommended for the faint of heart or the weak of pocketbook.

Internships are usually billed as 'resume builders,' important stepping stones for young people interested in breaking into highly competitive 'glamour industries' such as fashion, publishing, architecture, and television.

Sure, every so often a bust-assing intern might snag a production assistant position at CBS or a really good recommendation from an editor at Spin -- or Utne Reader, for that matter -- but aside from these much-touted Horatio Alger instances, the tangible rewards of interning are underwhelming.

What people don't think about, writes Jim Frederick in The Baffler (#9), is the economic impact of these industries' growing dependence on the countless hours of labor provided by young, willing, unpaid workers. Take MTV -- probably one of the choicest internships around. Frederick reports that the network uses between 150 and 200 unpaid interns at any given time and requires from each at least two days a week of work. If MTV's army of interns were to be paid minimum wage, he estimates that the cost would set the network back some $642,270 a year. Extending the same formula to the estimated 40,000 unpaid internships that are filled each year nationwide ? and assuming that they each last 12 weeks ? he comes up with a whopping cost savings (for business) or wage loss (for interns) of $39.5 million.

So why are so many young people lining up to work for free? 'The glamour industries enjoy a tremendous surplus of labor,' Frederick notes. 'There are more people who want media jobs than can be employed. Therefore labor is cheap, as demonstrated by the industry's already low salaries. If it can, a market will bid the wages all the way down to zero, as long as someone, anyone, will do the work, for whatever real or imagined benefit.'

This phenomenon owes much to the 1990s hyperwork culture, what former intern Margie Borschke, writing in the lifestyle magazine Shift (November 1997), calls the 'extreme Protestant Work Ethic' where go-go-go is the watchword for Surge-slugging twentysomethings. And after padding their resumes with three, four, or even more internships, increasingly, many young people are signing up for a new form of exploitation: freelance and contract work. 'Our willingness to take internships eradicated many entry-level jobs, and our willingness to take freelance and perma-lance positions further shrinks the corporate employee base,' she writes.