This is Your Life

Right now you are probably worrying about how to find an internship. Or after finding one you are stressing over how to make ends meet on a sub-minimum wage salary (or no salary at all). Getting caught up in the angst of it all, it is difficult to step back and ask, “Why is the internship process so miserable? And what does it all mean?” Ross Perlin, author of the first major book to broach the subject, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy (new from Verso), sat down with the Political Review to discuss internships and their place in the modern economy. Columbia Political Review: Why did you write this book?

Ross Perlin: The project goes back to some extent… I was nervous that I hadn’t had an internship. I was 23 and I hadn’t done it and I knew it was a right of passage that seemingly all of my friends had done. And I took it [an internship] and I spent about four or so months there. It was a pretty banal experience. It was not exciting. It was not deeply troubling. But it kind of slowly dawned on me: I slowly began to wonder why I was doing it… I began to wonder, if I didn’t have that scholarship… would I have been able to do this? And I saw that we were a world unto ourselves… and I just began to wonder about this whole phenomenon.

Where had it stemmed from, why had it become naturalized in our generation to give up your labor for free? At first I was just looking for something to read… and I couldn’t find anything. There’s one article from the 1990s in The Baffler, but otherwise you’re looking at the standard, boring ‘Summer is here! People are doing internships!” piece in USA Today. But nothing substantial, nothing questioning it.

So I decided I would write something and as I began to see the connections to a variety of issues to the changes in educational practices, to global forms of businesses, to other forms of so-called contingent labor like temping and freelancing and all of these things that exploded in the last 30 to 40 years… I felt ‘There’s a book here,’ and that actually internships represented a kind of keyhole through which actually a number of things about our generation and about our economy and society would become clear.

CPR: When you talk about the cases that came up sixteen years ago and last year [court cases by interns against the companies employing them] and some of the recent legislation [promises of a war on internships by President Barack Obama last year], the six-point checklist [a test by the department of labor to determine whether an internship should be paid or unpaid] and things like this, you’ve got to ask: Why wasn’t there a book already? Why did you get to be the lucky guy to pick up the contract to write a piece of pop sociology that should have been written maybe fifteen years ago?

RP: True, ture. Many millions of people have been through unpaid internships at this point. It’s been so naturalized that people don’t even realize that their parents… let alone their grandparents didn’t do this. And so people just took it so much for granted and anyone who poked at it a little bit deeper would have been maybe a little mystified, because there’s not a widely accepted definition of what an intern is. There aren’t many good statistics. I ran into that wall when I started research and said, actually there’s not much to go on here, how am I going to do this? So it led naturally to the decision… [that] it was going to be more impressionistic.

One thing was naturally to ask what’s the history of this, and nobody has written what’s the history of this except for knowing that this came from the medical profession in some sense. But… nobody had filled in that intermediate chunk, so it was about drawing out that genealogy and framing the topic. But ultimately that was the most exciting thing about doing this was that you actually set the agenda in some sense, set out what the major questions are and hopefully set up more stuff, prompt people to collect statistics, prompt people to write counterarguments and counter-theses.

CPR: Throughout your book one looks at the statistics that you do bring up and they’re extremely wishy-washy numbers. It begs the question: If it’s in the interest of the people who control these sorts of numbers to keep them very hush hush… how do people dig deeper than that in the future?

RP: The gold standard in terms of statistics about the labor market is to have something tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in D.C. And it’s my hope … that the BLS would take an interest in this and start tracking it. Even then it’s going to rely on some self-reporting either by interns or by employers and it’s going to require a better definition of intern.

But there is, as you say, some good information that is out there that is not being released—particularly what colleges and employers collect about their own situations… Even though this is a subject that deeply concerns the academic world, of course there aren’t any academics who research it. Of course labor studies departments in general are small and getting smaller. But in the process of writing this I met a few students [researching intern labor]… so I think there might be more and more bubbling up.

CPR: But it seems like it’s going to require a big norms change for interns themselves. Right now there’s a huge incentive for them to not report because of the desperate urge to keep even a really shitty internship. So how do you tackle that … sense of a need to have an internship and that sense of a need to jealously protect what, by means of merit or by means of connections, you’ve gotten for yourself?

RP: I think it’s true that getting detailed information… is difficult. Just as it was difficult for me to get people to go on the record because students and young people don’t want to alienate these employers when, in some cases, the only thing they’re supposed to get out of the internship at all is a letter of reference of a good recommendation. They don’t want to endanger that. So that deeper data is still going to be hard to get unless you begin to have really protective, rigorous, anonymized surveys… People would be willing to report at least the bare facts: Did you have an internship? Was it paid? What was the situation? But there hasn’t been any kind of effort that’s been well funded enough or widespread enough. Even to have a Yelp of internships or a website of internship reviews would be a huge thing and a number of websites have tried to do this, but it’s all been fragmented and there’s no one place to go.

CPR: One of the huge things… is the transitory nature of internships and especially abuse by start-ups of interns. And that’s got to corner… enough of intern positions through start-up abuse, one-time positions, transitioning or dying companies, things like this—it’d be hard to track that.

RP: The transitory nature of the thing is what makes it particularly hard to study and what makes it particularly hard to organize interns and develop a community of interest around this topic. But a lot of things are like that in today’s economy. There’s a lot more churn in every respect. Companies with very short-term business models that come and go and reform and recombine… and to keep track of it all, to make any sort of larger statements about it is a serious challenge… for anybody.

CPR: This draws us into the … economics of internships. When we talk about how difficult it can be to afford an internship, sometimes having to pay to work, I was thinking about the situation… of different economic brackets where for some it’s really only feasible if they go back and live with their parents. That limits the internships they have access to. It, not even by connections, but by proximity and situation over merit, privileges a certain class of individual. So what, in the long term, does that do to class divides, race divides in America?

RP: If internships are to rise up in public consciousness as a serious question of public policy, this has to be the pressing concern. In the US, unfortunately, the focus is still on sob stories of this individual or this kid, or especially on stories of particular abuse, like: this person had to carry their boss’s urine sample to the doctor, this person had to disinfect all the doorknobs. And those stories do capture people’s imagination, but the subtler story is what you’re talking about: increasing social inequality because of internships as one more glass ceiling, one more barrier to entry.

If you’ve made it to college—a significant percentage of young Americans don’t—if you’re at a community college, you’re much less likely to be able to do an internship. And if you’re much less likely to be able to do an internship, you’re much less likely to enter the ranks of the white-collar world. It’s not that you have to have a white-collar job to survive, but increasingly, as we allow the last vestiges of our manufacturing base to disappear, the white-collar world, it’s definitely where the commanding heights of the economy are. I argue that internships have become this gateway into the white-collar world and, as you say, it usually requires thousands of dollars… to do an unpaid internship just because of the living expenses, just because of the cities where they’re concentrated, not to mention the opportunity costs of not being able to earn money during those hours.

And the other piece of it is that the professions where internships have become completely a requirement or a right of passage that you have to go through—these fields like politics, media, fashion, film, that are hugely influential professions and shape the society. So the composition of those professions, I would argue, is either changing, skewing even more towards more upper-middle class profiles, or internships… another mechanism by which elites are cementing themselves in these sorts of positions.

CPR: If you were to tackle them [internships] and pull out that little Jenga™ block from the bottom of so many forces of American industry, what happens if all the interns disappear? You think about jobs returning. But at the same time you wonder what it would cost those companies, what it would mean for small companies, startups, to the whole economy.

RP: That’s a huge question and nobody knows the answer. We’ll have to see what an intern strike would bring or some immediate possibility of enforcement of law. It’s unlikely that internships would disappear overnight … but I do think a consequence would be job creation. There’s no question in my mind that interns are displacing regular workers and to some extent shooting themselves in the foot because in particular the people who are displaced would be entry-level employees. I do think that students after graduating would find more entry-level jobs available to them [if internships vanished].

On the other hand, would some capacity and work just disappear? Absolutely. I think the number of firms, companies, organizations that would just fold would be pretty small. But they would either have to make the hires, or in some cases their capacities would just be reduced. Which wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing because some of these organizations are trying to use interns to bat above their weight. But … your activities should probably reflect you weight. In some sense it would restore a certain amount of efficiency and honesty to certain sectors.

I tend to think that internships involve a lot of waste—waste of people’s time, waste of an opportunity also, and that… any organization has money on the line when they’re paying somebody. They’re more likely to make efficient use of that [person]. Likewise people, when they’re being paid, they’re much more likely to value their own work. They’re much more likely to be invested in what’s going on. Economies that rely on substantial amounts of unpaid labor or barely paid labor are rife with inefficiency and rife with a kind of dispirited feeling.

CPR: One thing that you’ve been getting at throughout here is that there’s a huge trend in the new economy towards blurred lines… between definitions of what you do, where you work, what your mission is. You’re calling in a way for a move back towards firm definitions and delineations [defining internships and enforcing those strict definitions]—sort of beating ceaselessly back against the current in many ways. How do you convince people to actually go in for that?

RP: I’m a New Dealer, personally. For me, the high point in American political history comes in the 1930s and comes with the rationalization and the humanization of working conditions in America and the great rise of the middle class that comes after that. And it’s true—I think there’s an old-fashioned impulse in me that rebels against the in some ways complete craziness and complete disorganization of this brave new economy… in which everything is free form and should be unregulated and wild. There’s a lot of startups, even the idea of the career beings to dissolve, there’s no regular employment and all that stuff is seen to erode and everybody is just moving from project to project: to some extent that does call for new ideas.

In Europe there’s that idea of ‘flex security,’ that neologism of the idea of actually having security within flexibility, that the role of governments can be to help manage the flexibility that is such an important component of the new economy. By tiding people over as they’re between projects if everything is abut going from project to project. Reconstituting the social safety net for the kind of churn that we have today. But to some extent I still think that the old models still do apply in some ways and the ideals of standard employment, of a nine to five, of staying with an organization or a firm for a substantial period of time and even having a single career ark—not only do I think those things can be good for society overall for a general sense of social stability and a general sense of social equality, but I also think that a lot of what are touted as massive, impersonal economic shifts are companies trying to save a buck, or they’re excuses.

One classic example is: if you look at the claims of companies you would see, ‘Wow, contracting is booming, there are so many independent contractors now, that’s a feature of our economy.’ But the federal government has found that it’s mostly a massive tax dodge, that 30 percent of American companies (I think is the statistic) were misclassifying regular workers who work for their companies … purposefully as independent contractors for tax purposes and for purposes of paying for healthcare and things like that.

It’s not that the old model has totally disappeared. It’s not that all of that was totally irrelevant necessarily. It’s that it’s been in the interest of companies to proclaim all of this flexibility and all of these new changes to save money.

CPR: You think about some of the pressure that would be put on any attempt to define what an intern is. There will have to be exceptions to the definition—things that approximate an apprenticeship or under certain situations might not need to be paid. But how do you create a definition that can be flexible, but won’t be swiss-cheesed full of loopholes that can be manipulated?

RP: I don’t know. Although I see the benefits of trying to forge a definition—certainly the benefits of trying to make this a public policy issue, of trying to track it—it could… trigger a huge fight between the different interested parties. To me the six-point test, even though it’s from the 1940s, in many ways can still apply. The basic sense that, if this is really about training… then that—not paying that for that delimited period of time—I can see that in some cases, and that’s what the original Supreme Court case was about.

Otherwise… interns are workers. Yes, it’s clearly a category of young worker, it’s a transitional period, but… part of what I try to do in the book, even in the language of the book is reinforce that interns are workers. They’re working, and they need to be seen as such instead of being seen as students, or flunkies, or minions, or just being almost invisible. What I would like to see happen is for people to have a greater consciousness of what work product is and interns as workers.

CPR: We’re talking about a difficult issue that’s just in its infancy, so it’s difficult to talk about a long game, or even first steps. But if you did have to name a first step, if you had to name where we go from here, further study aside … what’s the first big step?

RP: [Long pause] The most important step—well, I’ll give two … but it’s going to take time. A change in mentality, and maybe it takes time, maybe it involves going back in time, maybe forward—is to reestablish the basic equation that work brings wages. That mentality has to be reestablished.

In the meantime, probably the first concrete step is enforcement of the existing law. I think it’s generally adequate enough—this is a controversial point. I think that the Department of Labor, probably with a relatively small number of high-profile cases… or just by being a little more active, just doing a little bit, could spook some of the worst offenders out of doing what they do. Even just a year ago… I know of companies that then changed to paid internships as a result [of slightly increased efforts]. They saw something in the New York Times, they heard that the government might do something, the law came in front of some people and they said, ‘Wow, we’re a multi-billion dollar company, we’re not even paying minimum wage. And if this got out there could really be some trouble. And really this is not a big deal. It costs us almost nothing. And this is a silly risk we’re taking.’ So I think even that was enough to prompt a little bit of movement. Even if the Department of Labor took a little more activist posture, that would be a very important first step and would help change the culture.

CPR: There was a good story from, I think she was an assistant back when that meant something more than just doing paper work, and she was at a publishing house. And they had her read manuscripts now and then and she read a manuscript and saved it from the trash pile and fought for it in meetings and got her way and it turned out to be One Flew over the Coocoo’s Nest. You’ve got to imagine that by avoiding these training aspects and focusing in on having this huge demarcation between who’s a worker and who’s doing menial internship work… there’s a loss that might transfer into profit losses for companies.

RP: I think there’s a very strong business case for paid internships as opposed to unpaid. But that’s actually an aspect I hadn’t really thought about. It’d be difficult to quantify, but there’s probably something to it. On the other hand, interns are sometimes listened to and do sometimes make that kind of contribution. Interns have been at the head of bringing companies into social media. As that has become a huge deal, what’s your social media strategy … I’m a bit of a skeptic now of all that, but I think interns get sort of generationally pegged.

In any case I think the business case for paid interns is strong. You’re drawing from a wider applicant pool. They’re more likely to have those ideas. They’re more likely to be able to do those fantastic things because they’re not worried about how they’re going to support themselves and they’re not the boss’s nephew or whatever. It’s more likely to be a meritocratic system where you’re getting serious, good work out of people. [In an unpaid model] you just try to squeeze whatever you can out of them while you can because it’s an unsustainable model, whereas in a good paid internship program you can expect real boons coming out of it.

CPR: Let’s talk quickly about the connections versus meritocratic issue. It’s a slightly different topic because even if you tackle definitions of internships, even if you tackle fair pay for interns, you still have a potentially serious bias in hiring practices to handle.

RP: It just occurred to me about first steps, arguably the government itself could look at its own internship program. 50 percent are unpaid. The double standard is crazy… What’s most egregious there is that Congress has an exemption to the Fair Labor Standards Act, essentially, for its interns.

But … the reason that that just occurred to me, because you were asking about connections. Just taking government again for a second, there are policies … that government has to follow certain fair hiring practices… Relatively, hiring of government jobs is based on open hiring and meritocratic decisions in a routinized kind of way. Do that for internships as well.

Everything else in government we expect some transparency. Government internships, forget about it… Generally, the standards for interns are low or nonexistent in terms of fair hiring practices and transparent practices. I’m not such an idealist that I believe connections will go away. I’d just like to see the role of connections in intern hiring more or less the same level of what it is for job hiring instead of off the charts much worse.

And I think that also is a culture change, because people just thing, an internship, it’s informal. People have said this kind of thing to me, people will just say, ‘I can get you an internship.’ They wouldn’t say that about a job, it would sound a little too, just …

CPR: Mafioso?

RP: Mafioso. But for an internship… all we need is a desk, we’ll just stick you at a desk and nobody needs to know. And you’d be surprised at the companies where this goes on, major companies that even have internship programs. People just feel… ‘I can just do my own little intern fiefdom here.’ So there’s also a culture change involved. But connections are not going to go away completely. But internships have been a favored vector for the use of connections. That’s partly why they’ve thrived so much. It’s part of what makes it… a glass ceiling.

CPR: You getting any flack for the book?

RP: To my surprise it’s come more from the academy, A lot of businesses just hide and they say, ‘Oh no, we’re doing a good job.’ But schools feel that this is their turf… they’ve got it under control, they’re ensuring a good experience, whereas my message is: The system is… substantially dysfunctional. And internships have grown beyond campus and represent a wider issue that we all need to have a stake in. It’s not simply their turf.

And I’ve gotten some bad reviews from people who interpret it as a right-left issue. The book is with a left-wing press and it’s a book about labor. Even to raise the issue of labor is considered a crazy, Marxist war cry in this atmosphere. I think this is something that should be agreed upon across the political spectrum: you should be paid for work. To me that’s just a core principle. But to some extent, especially if you begin to talk about the Fair Labor Standards Act and having the Department of Labor involved, it then can become a right-left issue.