In February, the UK conservative party hosted its annual Black and White Ball. At this closed-off event, a series of prestigious internships were auctioned off to party donors. Conservative supporters bought their children a couple of weeks’ work experience for around £4,000 at banks, magazines and PR companies.
Ross Perlin has written a book, Intern Nation, in which he says: “In much of the developed world, the subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now a crucial part of being young.” Internships have now spread to every industry, to every country and are no longer the preserve of aspirant doctors.
Perlin visits Disney World, Florida, where 30 years ago, facing a local labour shortage, Disney contacted American universities to see if they would lend students as temporary workers. The universities were supportive and, even now, 8,000 students a year work for up to seven months as cartoon characters, waiters, or monorail drivers.
Disney pays pretty much minimum wage and the interns are provided with lodgings, the rent being deducted from their pay, and they work full-time, “without sick days or time off, without grievance procedures, without protection against harassment or unfair treatment”.
The students live in gated compounds, two to a room, which are regularly searched by security. Disney has effectively created its own permanent, low-cost workforce. Disney is known as a hard-nosed company, but Perlin says recent cases of intern abuse, in Oregon, occurred in a solar panel company, an organic farm and a design company.
The American Cancer Society offers dozens of unpaid internships, yet pays its chief executive $1.2 million: law companies, political parties, the media, all exploit ambitious young people with unpaid internships.
John Stossel is a well-known, right wing American broadcaster, who says: “I’ve employed interns my whole career. They’ve done most of the research for my books and most of the research that won me Emmy awards. I asked my bosses to pay for the research help, but they laughed at me, saying; ‘You think we’re made of money?’”
Perlin has spotted that the internship phenomenon is a symptom of broader changes in business and the psyche of the middle-class worker. Young professionals now see themselves as brands that require investment, with unpaid work being the trade-off for gaining experience.
In the current economic climate, companies are savagely trying to minimise costs, executive salaries aside. The internet has encouraged people to expect everything to be given away for nothing and for many young graduates, this is increasingly their labour.
Fifty years ago, “Almost no one worked for free in the offices of mid-century America”, says Perlin. There were, however, paid apprenticeships and structured training programmes. These may have been occasionally exploitative, but they were not limited to the children of the wealthy, or the well connected.
The practice of internship started in late 19th century medicine, when would-be doctors were interned in a hospital for a year. It slowly spread through the increasing bureaucracies of American government in the 30s and into the private sector in the 50s and 60s.
Perlin admits that internships can be useful. He says: “Even if their content often remains murky, they signal a go-getter applicant, already fluent in office culture. Internships are a ‘test-drive’ for both the intern and the employer.” Work is changing fast and an on-call, technology savvy army of workers might be just what the economy needs.
But there are substantial negatives. Exploitation, boredom and cynicism blight many internships and, in his book, Perlin interviews many 20-somethings, weighed down with debt from university, who are still not earning, have no significant career trajectory and live at home with their parents. The massive rise in youth unemployment makes their prospects worse than ever.
The increase in the practice of internships precludes those who cannot afford to work for nothing from many professions and the class composition of jobs, such as journalism, is being narrowed.
Perlin says that the UK is about five years behind the States in the development of its intern culture. A recent survey, by pollsters, YouGov, found a fifth of British companies took on interns as cheap labour. This boom may become a bubble that bursts, as the ubiquity of internships reaps diminishing returns on a CV, but it is more likely, that in an increasingly competitive employment market, a stint of unpaid work will become a post-graduate right of passage.