Did you know that it’s against the law to “employ” people and not pay them? In other words, most of the unpaid internships in New York City (some of which went into the production of this very magazine) are illegal. So, as it turns out, are most of the unpaid internships in this country, which, as Ross Perlin discovered in researching his new book, Intern Nation, runs almost entirely on intern power. So, with the summer intern season fast approaching, we asked Mr. Perlin how it came to this, and what’s to be done about the vast and nefarious intern black market.
So, not to be too self-obsessed, but here in New York the intern economy is largely synonymous with the media industry (I’m looking at three of them right now). But you’re telling us that virtually every sector of American industry has come to rely on an intern underclass—how deep does this go?
Very, very deep. At this point, interns are embedded in pretty much every white-collar field, in organizations of all shapes and sizes, for-profit and non-profit and public sector alike. And it’s going global too. There’s huge variation in how different industries handle internships and to what extent they rely on interns for actual work, but the media world is definitely one place that’s seriously caught up in the internship fever. When you reach the point in an industry where interns are displacing regular workers, and where working unpaid has become a crucial prerequisite for getting any kind of entry-level job, it’s definitely a sign that things are out of control.
You mention that outside the “glamor” industries (finance, entertainment, and the arts) most unpaid internships are held by low- and middle-income people. So what sectors are the worst offenders?
That’s right, the interning masses, perhaps surprisingly to some people, are not all wealthy kids, although those at the bottom of the social scale and those not at four-year colleges are pretty rare. Most interns are struggling to get through what they hope will be a very temporary period. The glamor industries see so much demand to break in, and are so confident that people will do whatever it takes, that they’re really pushing the envelope and demanding more and more of young people. Many of the worst stories of intern abuse tend to come from film and fashion. Publishing, the arts, and some parts of the non-profit world are pretty bad in terms of hiring interns on the basis of connections, keeping out people from lower-income backgrounds. Sometimes niche fields are among the worst: game-design internships, for example, are among the least likely to pay, just 11 percent according to one study.
I was shocked by the degree to which Washington is run by interns. How much power do these kids have, and what would happen to the country if they all just left?
Interns in D.C. run the gamut from completely powerless, idle kids spending a few weeks in some senator’s office to people doing very substantial and important work on energy policy, pending legislation, foreign affairs and the like, literally drafting official documents and shaping policies. It was during the federal government shutdown of 1995 that White House interns began to fill vital roles during a brief, intense period, when regular staff members had to go home—in some sense, that’s what led to the whole Lewinsky-Clinton affair, because ordinarily an intern and a president would not have been working in such close quarters.
If all interns disappeared tomorrow, things would definitely grow quite a bit quieter in Washington and in various state and city governments across the country. Lots of politicians, agencies, committees, think tanks, lobbyists, etc. would have to consider either making some actual hires or scaling back what they do. A whole patronage mill would grind to a halt. Starting a career in politics and public administration would depend more on principles of merit and fairness and less on someone’s ability to work unpaid.