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Junior Proles

IT SEEMS INDICATIVE of the ubiquity of internships that this book has a cover blurb from someone for whom I once interned. Benjamin Kunkel, I recall once having to deliver something to your apartment. Benjamin Kunkel, if you are reading this, I did not feel exploited. But my pleasant summer at a literary magazine puts me in the minority of my peer group.

As Ross Perlin writes in this sharp new study, today’s teens and twenty-somethings have been taught that they must first work for free if they ever hope to get paid—and they are getting a raw deal. In what he bills as “the first book-length analysis of internships,” Perlin puts the annual value of intern labor at a conservative estimate of almost $2 billion, performed free of charge, often for companies that could probably afford a minimum-wage employee or two.

The economic and legal problems with this arrangement are glaring. Internships exclude those whose families cannot afford to support them; they displace paid workers; they allow companies to dodge liability and colleges to cash in on “internship for credit” tuition dollars. Perlin is at his best delineating the systemic flaws of an “intern nation.” It is satisfying—I say this without rage or resentment, I think—to see obvious truths forcefully articulated and persistent myths dispelled.

Perlin is generally less convincing when recounting anecdotal evidence of the intern’s dreary lot. Arduous errands and stints on clean-up duty are no fun, but as tales of workplace hardship go, they are not particularly heart-wrenching. Perlin inadvertently acknowledges this difficulty when he contrasts Western Europe’s successful intern activism with the absence of any similar movement in the United States. In our country, he writes, “the lack of a broader principled stance against contingent work, tremendous youth unemployment, and the phenomenon of ‘prolonged adolescence’ leaves internship critics sounding isolated, petty, or spoiled.” Well, yes, it does.

Still, Perlin’s point is unequivocal: “By law, there are very few situations where you can ask someone to do real work for free.” The Labor Department’s provision for unpaid on-the-job training was originally formulated for railway brakemen, and it permits periods of uncompensated learning only when certain criteria are satisfied—for example, that the work “is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.” Few internships would satisfy such a requirement. Perlin dismisses the “convenient myth” that requiring interns to receive academic credit somehow absolves employers of responsibility to pay them. In reality, all that this “urban legend” has done is create a revenue stream for colleges, who can now receive tuition from students sitting in cubicles far off campus.

Months or years of unpaid work can be a prohibitive cost for all but the wealthiest citizens, and the growing pervasiveness of internships as a white-collar prerequisite risks closing off whole fields of employment to everyone else. What’s more, the failure to pay interns can deprive them of legal protection: Perlin relates the horror story of a sexually harassed intern whose complaint was dismissed because she did not qualify as an employee.

Intern Nation traces the history of the internship from a specialized period of medical training to a catch-all rite of passage. Along the way, Perlin detours into the alternate universe of apprenticeships: both better paying and more instructive than most internships, the apprenticeship has taken on a blue-collar stigma, while the internship wears “the same halo as higher education.” The internship, in Perlin’s estimation, functions less as a meaningful learning experience than as a social signal, a faddy buzzword, and the most important weapon in a resumé “arms race.” And fundamentally, poisonously, it devalues work. “Once you’ve been told that your work isn’t worth anything,” Perlin rightly observes, “you stop taking pride in it, you stop giving it your best.”

Perlin also explores some of the weirder and more extreme pockets of our intern nation, such as the lucrative business of advising and placing would-be interns. The flagrantly icky “University of Dreams,” for example, is a pay-to-play internship middleman whose name makes it sound like an educational charity for children with terminal illnesses. Perlin writes with horrified relish of his encounter with the $7,999 eight-week summer program’s founder, who describes interns as customers rather than as students or potential employees.            

The idea of interns as lowly subordinates seems to rankle Perlin, sometimes unnecessarily. One Washington, D.C. intern tells Perlin that attitude mattered when it came to getting assigned better tasks: “If you sat around and complained about having to answer the phone … you didn’t get great work.” This prompts Perlin to remark that “nobody likes an assertive intern.” Maybe so, if “assertive” means “whiny.” Of a cushy London banking internship, he notes ruefully that “these interns do work for their perks, however,” and cites a study finding that they “were expected to respect the hierarchy, to defer to and agree with more experienced colleagues, and to accomplish successfully without guidance any tasks assigned by a person of authority.” But surely that is how work works, at least at the beginning. And in describing the shtick of Lauren Berger, self-crowned “Intern Queen,” he writes that she “praises and perpetuates all that’s obsequious and careerist in the intern experience” because she uses a column in Seventeen to tell interns they should be deferential and agreeable. I do not deny that Berger is odious—she says she’s “really interested in branding” and sells intern-themed T-shirts on her website—but her advice here is basically sound.

Perlin’s call for an end to legal weaseling and economic unfairness is entirely appropriate. But what if doing menial labor, provided that it is under fair and transparent conditions, can be a worthwhile way of learning about the working world? Jobs are not always personally fulfilling and professionally enriching and led by supportive mentors; and life is not educational entertainment advancing reliably toward the realization of dreams. Perhaps these are not such terrible lessons to learn. Jobs are jobs. And discovering that work can be bleak is a crucial step in catalyzing a young achiever’s transformation from a consumer of services (paying to be asked to read books and take tests, complaining when you don’t get what you were sold) to a productive adult.

A perennial intern gripe, Perlin astutely notes, is the position’s lack of structure. It is true that sitting at a desk poking Gmail all day is pretty boring. No one likes feeling useless. But at the root of the complaint lies a discomfort with not being told what to do. Give the intern a test, and he will take it; assign the intern a final paper, and he will write it. But how is he supposed to demonstrate his intern worth without some familiar hurdles to jump, hurdles that someone else has established and will judge? Successfully applying for an internship is no problem. (For a certain sort of young person, winning adult approval is muscle memory.) Successfully doing an internship is something else entirely.

Perlin points out that the internship phenomenon coincides with our contemporary “prolonged adolescence,” a sentiment that one sad serial intern echoes when he says he felt like “a fake grown-up” while working for free. Being an adult, alas, often involves not being told what to do. Sometimes this is fun; other times it means that you have to decide for yourself what you value doing, because there will be no admissions committee to vindicate you. There is a vertigo that comes from realizing that your last all-nighter has ended, your last final passed. It begins when you find yourself sitting in a corporate cubicle at 11:40 AM, wondering when you should eat lunch—realizing that this is all the structure the world is going to give you, and that the burden of a better plan is all your own.

Molly Fischer is a writer in New York.