Why No One Makes It in America: The Unpaid Intern

Consider that "internship" and "internment" produce categorically different responses. One provides a launching point for conversation about summer plans while the other evokes intransigent human misery. This obvious comparison creates fertile ground for terrifically easy points that I'd absolutely love to score. But while considering the plight of the unpaid intern I've grown convinced that commenting on the no-pay internship's implications for the pre-professional undergraduate requires a sobriety that facile irony wouldn’t allow.

Briefly let's look at the components of the archetypical internship. Internships, paid or unpaid, promise untrained college students the invaluable chance to gain work experience, to experience the working life, and, with that resume populated by big name firms, undergrads may develop the capacity to pop eyeballs forcefully from their sockets like pimentos from an olive.[1]

In a professional world that keeps raising the bar for previous industry-relevant experience, any internship that helps you build hard skills and bolster your resume is crucial. Without interrogating the wider status quo, this seems to me inarguable. Internships matter to employers; any undergrad so lacking is at a material disadvantage in the postgrad job search.

For the most part, people are okay with paid internships. If you’re unjamming printers at Goldman Sachs and paid for the effort, you're happy because that's not far off from a real job. If you're bending over backwards for your salaried colleagues and unpaid, then it becomes a serious problem.

Steven Greenhouse gets props for highlighting the curious state of unpaid internships.[2] At the time I was doing the Gov major thing, i.e., interning on the Hill. I'd lucked out entirely and landed a solid position working a small House subcommittee meaning that during my day I got to do legitimately job-related stuff like review documents for congressional investigations while other kids who worked directly for congressmen handled constituent calls. Constituent calls were explained to me as being similar to working an IT hotline, minus any ability to aid the aggrieved party; everyone who calls is pissed off about something you had nothing to do with so you wait until the constituent grinds their teeth to the pulp and hangs up which sounds great but is not actually all that great because, hey, look, the phone's ringing again. Also, sometimes you get to take middle-schoolers on Capitol tours. For all your troubles as an intern in the Congress of the United States, you receive zero[3] dollars and regular entreaties for covert sex.[4]

So I was really feeling Greenhouse back in 2010. At the core of the shitstorm igniting the pages of The Grey Lady and prompting Mouth editors to give me this assignment lies the socioeconomic cleavage implicit in and reproduced by unpaid internships.[5] The Haves can afford to take on that very sweet unpaid internship while the Have Nots are shafted like usual. Moreover, Haves have the luxury of choosing to take an unpaid internship in a field of their choice while the Have Nots face a perverse incentive to chase the paid internships—of which there are many fewer—that most commonly occur in finance or consulting. Of course, the divergence in internship election then feeds back into job outcomes. All of a sudden the Haves have more and the Have Nots are still loitering outside, having naught. If you have a sense of social justice or karma, this is one of those self-reinforcing race-to-the-bottom scenarios that define suboptimality.

There's something larger going on here. The socioeconomic wedge effect generated by unpaid internships is emblematic of the kind of vicious cream-skimming cycle standard in contemporary neo-social Darwinistic America. For all its bluster, vim and aimless vigor, the Occupy Wall Street movement posed a real danger to every politician by flailing toward a sense that the system was definitely, without a doubt, catastrophically broken, even if the breakpoint wasn't exactly clear. With an emphasis on the plain criminality of U.S. income and wealth inequality, the scrubs of Zuccotti shouted in the ear of the sleeping giant, i.e., the absurdly large 90% of America that owns a scant 23.3% of all wealth, i.e., a fucking pittance.[6] [7]

Scholarly works by reputable experts who study this sort of horrifying thing can corroborate plenty of dismal facts if you wish. For example, socioeconomic mobility is substantially easier to achieve in those damned socialist Euro nations than in the U.S. of A., or that real wages for all but the top earners have flat lined or dropped since the 1970s. [8] [9]

These are shitty things about our country. We are not playing a fair game and those who claim we are need to stop kidding themselves. Fundamentally, the manifestation of inequality within internships and internships' reproduction and exacerbation of inequality springs from a powerful subterranean current driven by a wealth distribution gone completely sideways.

The narrative of unpaid internships has played out in newspapers written and read by middle- to upper-class families. Appropriately, then, the papers reflect that cohort's anxieties. The anxieties are entirely reasonable, but they are indicative of privilege most Americans do not have. Still issues surrounding unpaid internships twine with problems in America at large when we put it in perspective as an outgrowth of the topsy-turvy state of current affairs affecting us all. Our ineffectively fettered market economy is throwing funhouse reflections of the American Dream back at us. Instead of hammering the bendy mirror flat, we’re fumbling dumbly at our elongated necks and running the numbers on outpatient cosmetic surgery.

We ought to shy away from solving the first-order cause (unpaid internships, outmoded labor laws, and exploitative corporations), peer past the second-order cause (bar-raising at every level, professional and academic), and dig deep until we hit upon the root of the issue. Cut the roots; kill the tree; save the unpaid intern.


[1] Interestingly, olives do not contain pimentos until a machine stuffs one in.

[2] See S. Greenhouse's NYT piece, “The Unpaid Intern, Legal or Not.”

[3] ..., zilch, nada.

[4] Only in airports.

[5] That the Times hands out a good deal of unpaid internships itself is just another entry in my Bullshit of Bullshits, All Is Bullshit** folder. This is an actual, physical folder of mine that I keep in my room alongside other important documents like my birth certificate and a letter I wrote to future-me in 5th grade. The folder is an enormous folder.

[5] **If you didn't get it, that's an Ecclesiastes reference. Appreciate me.

[6] Dan Ariely and Michael Norton, “Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time.”

[7] OWS deserves credit for pushing important questions, even if the movement appeared constitutionally opposed to concrete proposals as though 'answers' are something that only The Man does. The 99% vs. 1% paradigm is an enduring OWS artifact. And though income inequality is visibly awful, wealth distribution tends toward the tragic. Wealth is a stronger assurance of economic security so if/when shit hits the fan, you lose your job, you need to pay tuition, etc., wealth helps you weather that storm. With negligible or negative net worth, millions of Americans have no choice but to lead their lives strung from paycheck to paycheck.

[8] Joseph Stiglitz, "Equal Opportunity, Our National Myth."

[9] Dylan Matthews, “Wages Aren't Stagnating, They're Plummeting.”