Unfree Labor

A review of Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

Taped up in my dorm room there is a poster I stole off the wall one day after class. It is part of a series aimed at common student misconceptions about employment during and after college. In this case, the proposition poignantly placed in the first-person voice of a misguided student is that “I will be able to find a job after college without any internship experience.” The helpful corrective to this “myth” is the official suggestion from Career Development that “students have at least two internships by senior year.”

I display the appropriated poster waggishly, as a surprisingly naked example of the coercive function of the bright signs and friendly emails put out by career services offices, but I make sure not to laugh too hard, since I can’t disagree too strongly with its statement. It is important to get internships, and I’m currently playing that game just as the Barnard Career Education office would have me. “Internships,” a word I don’t think I knew the meaning of until college, are now so ubiquitous as to feel inescapable. In Intern Nation, Ross Perlin argues that something similar has happened on a larger level: the internship, which came into existence in its modern form only a few decades ago, naturalized so quickly that it has resisted statistical accounting, much less critical politicization.

Perlin’s book is an initial entry into this void. Already, it has sparked substantial debate and at least one concrete reform—Verso, the publisher of Intern Nation, now pays their interns $8 (or, in the UK, £6.50) per hour rather than nothing. As a research project, the book is concise and impressive, both in its command of what little quantitative literature exists and its supply of anecdotes that disclose the surprising scope and nature of the internship boom. Perlin takes readers on a tour of the absurd extremes to which we have taken the simple idea of trading un(der)paid labor for a foot in the industry door—wealthy parents bidding against each other to buy their kids the chance at a top internship, interns sent to deliver aid in Afghanistan, interns pressed into service as line workers at Foxconn plants. The biggest scandal that Perlin exposes, however, is the simple fact that most unpaid internships are flatly illegal under the Fair Labor Standards Act, which specifies that employers receive “no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees [unpaid interns.]” Interns have little legal recourse when they have complaints with their employer, a problem which becomes especially glaring in the case of sexual harassment, a predictably common complaint among no-status interns. Perlin’s careful treatment with the details and history of labor law is a welcome engagement a subject not usually the focus of books for popular audiences. He is also good at citing examples of internship programs he thinks are well-run, paying their interns and providing them with real vocational training, as evidence that the abuses he points to are eminently preventable.

Intern Nation is an effective intervention into a specific question: the author exposes the scale and legal status of unpaid internships, and proposes quite sensibly that employers should bring their internship programs up to current legal standards. This is a modest demand, but history shows that even campaigns like these can constitute important victories. Still, Perlin’s rhetoric sometimes hints at more left-wing directions, as when he paraphrases the slogans of Karl Marx and the immigrants’ rights movement (“Nothing to Lose But Your Cubicles!,” “Imagine a Day without an Intern.”) Unfortunately, Perlin’s book is not effective at engaging with politics beyond the question of whether the FLSA should be applied uniformly. “Refusing to join the internship arms race,” Perlin counsels, “need not mean losing your edge” or “resigning yourself to a second-tier career.” There are other ways to get ahead, and young readers should scour their interests to find out how the best way toward “career advancement.”

By putting his case in these terms, Perlin ends up reproducing the competitive logic that drives the internship craze. He even warns that internships represent “lost time,” during which students presumably should have been “entrepreneurial.” In passages like these, Perlin criticizes internships because they aren’t the only (or even the best) way to the top—he judges them on their own terms rather than within a larger systematic critique. His quarrel isn’t with the idea that kids need to exercise constant scrutiny of themselves and their time to be employable, or with the snobbish concept of “second-tier” careers as a pit to be avoided. Perlin is an explicit proponent of meritocracy – a form of organization that looks a lot like this one, but in which we justify vast inequalities with the delusion that the winners win because of their exceptional abilities. Unpaid internships are bad from this perspective because they gum up the pipes of meritocratic mobility, stocking the elite with well-connected hacks instead of the brightest products of every social class. Making sure all internships were openly advertised and paid positions would, Perlin argues, renew the old liberal promise of the career open to talent.

You needn’t be a defender of old-fashioned nepotism to understand the huge problems with meritocracy, as a quick glance at America’s elite colleges will show. Once upon a time, goes the story passed on from luminaries like David Brooks, the Ivy League reproduced a narrow power elite with legacy admissions and anti-Jewish quotas, but increased financial aid and the hegemony of the origins-blind SAT mean that today’s Bonesmen and Whiffenpoofs come from all across the country and the economic spectrum. But in real life, things did not work out quite so neatly: according to one study of the top 174 colleges in the country, 74 percent of students come from the top socioeconomic quartile, and 3 percent from the bottom. Of course, part of this is because inegalitarian policies like legacy admissions have proved shockingly enduring. But it is also based on a misdiagnosis of the central problem; whether or not financial aid is available for poor people who get into Harvard means nothing if poor people will never be able to assemble the kind of application Harvard demands. Poor applicants lost their “edge” before they were born. The same problem would dog an intern sector remade according to Perlin’s specifications: even if poor people could in theory apply for and afford internships, they would need to put together applications which stood out from the huge pool of kids striving for the first-tier. Perlin’s program would be a genuine help to the many middle-class students who can’t afford to work without pay, and the world would be a better place with these laws enforced, but it won’t go any farther toward solving the bigger problem of inequality than Princeton has.

In places, Perlin’s rhetoric hints that poor or working class people are not really his concern at all. In his conclusion, he speaks of a “whole generation” kept busy as teenagers with structured foreign travel and strenuous SAT tutoring, as if this was in fact the experience of most people in a country with a child poverty rate of 21 percent. Perhaps this blitheness is a result of his bizarrely sanguine take on the state of non-intern working life in our country. Perlin criticizes internships for failing to meet the standard of “original, autonomous, self-definition,” as if this were something anyone could reasonably expect from a job under American capitalism. Though Perlin briefly discusses internships in the broader context of precarious labor and advocates worthwhile policies based on the Danish “flexicurity” model, he doesn’t let this detour deter him from assuming a solid consensus around things like minimum wage, workplace protections, and the right to organize. He goes so far as to say these issues are no longer even count as “politicized.” The internship scandal, in Perlin’s estimation, is an outlier to this cozy social contract, and needs only to be brought up to standard. Unfortunately, it looks like a different kind of convergence is more likely, the line between internships and real jobs will be effaced as real jobs become less secure and compensation less generous, and the American labor movement becomes a wistful memory. The idea of “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work” is in trouble on more than one front.

To change this state of affairs, political action is clearly necessary, but what kind isn’t. Is Perlin right to suggest that one solution is to “identify and organize as interns?” Here, I think we might do well to question the usefulness of the category itself. Consider an example to which Perlin devotes a whole chapter: the Disney College Program. Building on an earlier memoir by a College Program veteran, Perlin describes the labor necessary to keep Disney World running. College Program students do unpleasant work for minimum wage and minimal benefits, all while facing the most arbitrary workplace discipline. The company twists immigration law to import menial workers on “cultural exchange” visas, and colleges collude with Disney, offering credit and receiving tuition for the dubious lessons of “Disney University.” Even worse, the College Program is not unionized, which pits interns against the organized year-round workers.

All in all it’s an ugly picture, and well-reported by Perlin, but why is this part of the problem of internships? The students all receive Florida’s minimum wage, now at $7.25 an hour. Based on my adolescence spent consuming at Central Florida price levels, I’d venture that this gives them more purchasing power than Verso’s New York interns, whose $8/hr the radical-left publisher deems a “living wage.” If there is still something lamentable in the condition of the Disney workers (who really do sound more exploited), it’s beyond the problem of unpaid or illegal internships. When the Disney College workers begin to fight, should they identify as “interns,” making common cause with people like me who secure stipends from their wealthy colleges and lodging from well-situated relatives in order to accept unpaid internships during vacations? I’d think they’d be better off linking their cause to the other people in this country who are already paid but still exploited—the other unorganized working poor whose exploitation is completely legal under minimum wage laws.

In a nice phrase, Perlin calls internships a “curious blend of privilege and exploitation.” But the proportions of the mix can, as his own examples illustrate, vary quite widely. To understand this, and to explore what political forms are appropriate to the problem, will require much more than Perlin’s framework can offer. If it’s clearly unfair to task a monograph of under 300 pages with the such a huge and thorny political project, it doesn’t seem wrong to see how its own examples point toward further complications. Perlin’s book and its limitations show how we need to do more than fine-tune the gears of meritocracy. If our goal is “original, autonomous, self-definition” at work, or even something as modest as a living wage, we need to analyze the entire economic framework (nearly all of which Perlin accepts) and, more importantly, change it.