Ross Perlin’s “Intern Nation,” on life as an intern

May 20, 2011

For a window into the intern brain, look no further than “Jack and the Beanstalk.” In the fairytale, a boy goes to the market with the family donkey, planning to sell the animal for cash. On the way, though, he trades it instead for a packet of magic beans. His mother is distraught (“You sold your ass for beans?!”), but Jack doesn’t lose heart. He plants a bean in the ground; up rises a huge enchanted ladder to an unimaginably wealthy land in the clouds.

It’s the intern’s story in so many ways. There’s the initial uncertainty about compensation — has Jack been had? There’s his willingness to be paid in something other than cash, which puts him in a vulnerable position, at least until the beanstalk sprouts. And there’s the niggling sense of unfairness: Why does Jack get this offer? What about everyone else? But the really fascinating thing about “Jack” as a key to understanding interns is that it’s a fairytale. That’s not to say some internships aren’t good investments in the future, or that they don’t provide worthwhile training and contacts. Many are, and do (this reviewer is the grateful beneficiary of three unpaid stints). But internships today are packaged so much in the language of wish-fulfillment, of untold possibilities and endless career advancement, that among all the beanstalks one risks neglecting present realities.

Those realities are the subject of Ross Perlin’s eye-opening book “Intern Nation” — and they can be stark. Tens of thousands of Americans every year enter into exploitative work arrangements, doing menial tasks for little or no pay because they view such gigs as the price of admission to the white-collar world. Unprotected by anti-discrimination and harassment laws — the courts don’t consider uncompensated workers “employees” — they depend on their parents for support, or take out loans, or hold down additional jobs. Meanwhile, employers feel little impetus to create new paid positions, and a vast number of workers can’t afford to play the game at all.

Each of the book’s 11 chapters addresses a facet of the intern boom, from its economic implications to its ivory-tower advocates. Perlin is intent on debunking the “convenient myth” that “interns earning academic credit fall outside” the Fair Labor Standards Act, which guarantees a minimum wage for all U.S. workers. He’s outraged that campus career centers shepherd students into unpaid internships that give them course-credits while, as with any class, the students foot the bill. He also exposes the “matchmaker” companies that profit by securing office spots for students at a price.

Perlin is at his best when he relates internships to broader socio-economic trends. He traces the spread of interns working for nothing to the rise of the Internet’s “ideology of free,” which invites users to churn out unpaid content in return for exposure. Online entrepreneurs and interns speak a common language, he says, aiming for a presence, whether on a browser or in an office. The author also touches on the oft-deplored phenomenon of suspended adolescence, which he connects to internships that maroon 20-somethings in a widening gray area between dependence and self-sufficiency. (As a former “serial intern,” Perlin knows well how one unpaid gig leads to another.)

The book tackles a sprawling topic with earnestness and flair. Given the lack of scholarship on internships, much of its evidence is anecdotal, yet Perlin yanks readers to attention with a jaw-dropping statistic: 77 percent of unpaid interns are women. He brings wit and conviction to the expected arguments: that those who benefit directly from labor should bear the costs of that labor, that unsalaried jobs mean less money circulating in local economies, that wages teach young people their work has meaning. But he is equally eloquent on the business risks of depending on transient, wageless employees. Most powerfully, he shows how internships lie beyond the means of most Americans even as employers increasingly regard internship experience as a prerequisite for jobs.

Perlin’s no ideologue, nor does he discount the ability of a good internship to serves as a useful transition from school to work. He sketches a plan (complete with an “Intern Bill of Rights”) for reviving training opportunities. Still, it’s impossible to avoid the absurdity of a program like Disney’s — now 8,000 interns strong — that has students from all over the world flipping burgers and mopping floors because full-time labor is too expensive. Ultimately the evenhandedness of “Intern Nation” makes its diagnoses of injustice all the more chilling.

Katy Waldman is an unpaid intern at Slate.com.

INTERN NATION

How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

By Ross Perlin

Verso. 258 pp. $22.95

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