As the title of this well-researched and timely book implies, Britain and the United States are suffering an epidemic of unpaid labour. With graduates more abundant than ever, and graduate jobs ever scarcer, it has become near compulsory for young people entering the labour market to suffer a period of working for low pay or, often, for none at all.
In the past few months the issue of “work experience” as it is called in Britain has been politicised. In April, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, launched an initiative to try to democratise free placements, and was then attacked for benefiting from his father’s contacts when he was young.
In this, the first book-length study of the phenomenon, Ross Perlin, a young academic, has tried to show how the word “intern” has expanded in meaning and usage over the past 20 years. Originally a specific role for junior doctors, it now describes everyone from publishing odalisques to future masters of the universe, and every shape of coffee waiter and photocopy stapler in between.
Perlin begins with Disney, which has one of the longest-running mass intern programmes in the world. Every year, thousands of students from the US and abroad head to resorts in Florida and Los Angeles, sleeping in communal dorms and working long hours for low pay, for college credits and the distant hope of a job.
It is merely the surface of a deep and murky ocean. The most desirable professions, and especially those with low technical barriers to entry, are the worst offenders. Politics and the media – particularly newsrooms – are shown to be ruthlessly exploitative.
Parliament is accused of “jaw-dropping hypocrisy” about its army of free workers, estimated to provide 18,000 hours of free labour per week. In the US, a boss at an Emmy Award-winning film production company bats off a hopeful intern by saying, “we’re not made of money”.
Not all businesses are as guilty. For companies where getting the best graduate trainees is a matter of serious profit or loss – banks and law firms, especially – it has long been worthwhile selecting the best students to do summer internships, and paying them properly.
Despite Perlin’s tendency towards polemic, it is clear that most internships, whatever their specifics, boil down to basic economics. It might even be argued that it is a situation young people have made for themselves.
I got my own job at the Telegraph after a couple of months of working for free. Though I didn’t get my original placement through nepotism, I was able to live rent-free at my parents’ house in London while I scrabbled for articles and shift work.
I feel a double bind. On one hand, I can see how the internship system favours those better able to work for free, and goes against the workplace egalitarianism for which we have long strived.
As an individual, however, I resent the idea that I shouldn’t be able to decide for myself how to work. My approach was a calculated risk, balanced against getting another qualification or taking paid work at a less prestigious publication. Though by some interpretations what I did might be illegal, nobody put a gun to my head.
As Perlin also shows, while many businesses get valuable work out of this kind of labour, an equal number do not. Many interns simply stare out of the window while busy staff try to find something, anything, for them to do.
Though slanted for a US audience, and sometimes distractingly angry, Intern Nation contains plenty of lessons for Britain. It was interesting to note that Germany and Switzerland, both of which have recovered faster than Britain from the recession, have lower rates of internship and higher rates of traditional apprenticeship.
In this country, where immigrant labour fills skilled vocational roles – in engineering, plumbing, IT, and so on – there is a growing queue of graduates who feel entitled to a certain sort of white-collar “knowledge” job in a certain sort of office.
As long as this supply so outstrips demand, it will continue to exert a downward pressure on pay. It will – fairly – be the least able graduates who suffer, and also – less fairly – the poorest.