A bit of youthful struggle never hurt anyone

Ross Perlin’s exposé of the world of internships has some grim tales of unpaid, often futile work, but there’s still no reason why interns should see themselves as victims.

James Howell

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The publication of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy couldn’t have been better timed.

This year, internships, long moaned about by unemployed graduates and hard-up students, finally became part of the UK party political conversation. This was largely down to UK prime minister David Cameron’s public willingness to give his neighbour’s kid work experience at the same moment as his wet-sleeved deputy Nick Clegg was talking proudly of ending the it’s-who-you-know culture around internships. ‘I’m not relaxed about this at all’, Clegg was heard to mutter at the time. Still, this little in-house spat, and the attendant publicity, laid the ground perfectly for the publication of Perlin’s damning collection of internship woe.

Taking his anecdotes largely from the US but peppered with references to the UK, Perlin’s aim is to investigate the ‘curious blend of privilege and exploitation’ that characterises the internship phenomenon.

His first stop is Disney World in Florida, which receives a regular supply of students from US universities as part of the Disney College Programme. Perlin proceeds to document the conditions that the 8,000 or so students-cum-interns are ‘forced’ to work under: no sick days, no time-off, no grievance procedures, no protection against harrassment. And to soften the blow? Near minimum-wage pay and a stay in the two-to-a-room, gated company compounds. Perlin’s description is straight out of a JG Ballard novel: ‘Regular searches of cars and rooms are conducted… Vista Way looks a lot like a college where both hedonism and surveillance are on steroids.’ Drawing a comparison between the Disney College Programme and prison, Perlin calls it Mousecatraz – after Wesley Jones’ book of the same name.

At points Perlin seems to be almost enjoying evoking the misery and economic hardship of the Disney paid internship scheme, or as he sees it, the dark secret behind the magical mirage of Disney. ‘One of the world’s largest internship programmes’, he sighs, ‘touted as a massive and wondrous experiment in experiential education, is a minimum-wage corporate paradise, endorsed by schools and accepted by students, as much a mirage as the original EPCOT’.

This lament for the fate of interns, who lest it be forgotten, volunteer, is the start of a long collection of anecdotes which Perlin uses to rail against this oh-so-cruel internship system. Even here, in Disney World, Perlin fails to acknowledge that these interns aren’t mindless drones that have been seduced by the prospect of wearing mouse ears; rather, they have chosen to go to Disney because it is a chance to impress at one the world’s leading entertainment companies. But Perlin’s worldview, swinging between the twin poles of intern victimhood and intern self-importance, simply can’t allow for so mundane a scenario as students deciding that interning at Disney World might be in their best interests.

Further chapters heap more intern hardships upon the reader, whether it’s the exploitation of interns by charities, the exploitation of interns in politics, the exploitation of interns by law firms, or perhaps just the general sexual harassment of interns.

But it’s the putative inequality of the system that really gets Perlin – and his fans – riled. In a chapter with a typically moany title, ‘What about everybody else?’, Perlin echoes the complaint of campaign groups like Intern Aware or Internocracy, namely that the system favours the rich and well-connected. ‘The argument is straightforward’, Perlin writes: ‘many internships, especially the small but influential sliver of unpaid and glamorous ones, are the preserve of the upper-middle class and the super-rich’. Perlin, never shy of hyperbole, declares that this is nothing less than the modern-day resurrection of the class divide between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. ‘The rich get richer or stay rich thanks in part to prized internships’, writes Perlin, ‘while the poor get poorer because they are barred from the world of white-collar work’.

Unfortunately, rather than challenging the system, such complaints merely encourage interns to think of themselves as victims of the system. This inhibits any ‘get up and go’ on the part of students or school leavers determined to get on. Why fight tooth-and-nail for opportunities in an unequal society if, following Perlin’s lead, there are plenty of politicians and commentators willing to patronise you as a victim of that unequal society?

Given Perlin’s penchant for victimhood, it’s no surprise to see him cite former British minister Alan Milburn’s 2009 report into social mobility. There Milburn warned that internships create ‘a glass ceiling’ that obstructs those who can’t afford to work for free. Perlin, too, accepts the reality of this glass ceiling, and, in doing so, encourages his readers to accept it, too. ‘So what about everybody else?’, he moans, ‘The non-interns? Some will succeed anyway, of course, others will languish in an underworld of menial, low-wage work, trapped under a new glass ceiling or spirited away from particular professions. Internships are dividing us.’

Intern Nation ends with a rallying cry: it is ‘time to stop spreading the internship gospel’. What Perlin seems unable to grasp, however, is that the best way to tackle internships is not to call for government legislation. No, the best thing to do is to see the internship as an opportunity. Yes, it might be a struggle, it might require some sacrifices, but since when has struggle or sacrifice necessarily been a bad thing? Success and hard work aren’t unrelated.

Although the book is well written and contains a wealth of research, it is bereft of both optimism and, more worryingly, fight. In their place, Perlin is content merely to whine and whinge. He doesn’t seem to want young people to help themselves (which, after all, is the point of an internship); he wants others, whether it is politicians or HR departments, to do everything for them. The book finishes with ‘We’ve been free for the taking for too long. When will our hours matter?’ This combination of self-pity and self-importance is of no help to anyone.

James Howell is a second-year student at Goldsmiths, University of London and a former spiked intern.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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