O’Gara: Interns built the pyramids

Posted by Jacob O'Gara on Monday, May. 20 at 2:00 pm.

We take it for granted that the path to a lifetime of employment and prosperity after college is through internships. It is now understood that you simply must do your time, as it were, as an under or unpaid skilled laborer before you are truly ready to join the workforce. However, suppose that path leads to decades of debt and a kind of spiritual bankruptcy. What then? That would either mean something is enormously wrong with the system in which we have been living and working for the past half century or we have been fooled.

Back in the 1990s, The Baffler, a left-wing journal of criticism and snark, declared that “interns built the Pyramids.” This is, of course, wildly inaccurate since the workers of ancient Egypt were much better paid than the interns of modern America. Also, the Egyptians weren’t so fraught with anxiety about building their resumes (they were busy building pyramids after all) or getting their foot in the door or up the ladder or whatever internships promise.

And that promise is also the problem of internships. Beyond some buzzy rhetoric — internships are “win-win,” “career-boosting” opportunities for “go-getters” interested in “networking” and “gaining relevant experience” — the practice is mostly undefined. As Ross Perlin writes in his 2011 book “Intern Nation,” “What defines an internship depends largely on who’s doing the defining,” i.e. employers, and, Perlin suggests, it is in the interest of employers to define internships as broadly as possible. 

In the United States and most other societies, it is generally frowned upon to have people work without any sort of payment. Thanks to the structure of internships, employers have found a way around compensation laws, having millions of college students and graduates work for nothing, doing things that used to come with a paycheck. Instead of money, most of them receive college credit, which just means that they are paying to work. Other employers insist that unpaid internships are worthwhile because they offer “real world” experience. Perhaps, but that would mean that our nation’s universities aren’t doing their job to prepare and train the next generation. Alas, maybe they aren’t.

All of this is a result of a society and economy growing more and more complex (often just for complexity’s own sake) and mere jobs or gigs becoming professions. This wouldn’t necessarily be bad if we had the appropriate tools and policies at hand to deal with such complexity and professionalization. But we don’t. Modernity is nice and all, what with its iPods and sophisticated dentistry, but it has its drawbacks. Sometimes, it’s enough to long for the days of the pyramids.



  • David Sopkin

    I know you write these columns for satire; to rile up the student body, and to troll all of us. However, this one crossed the line.

    “This is, of course, wildly inaccurate since the workers of ancient Egypt were much better paid than the interns of modern America.” Are you out of your mind? They were paid NOTHING.

    A conservative estimate puts the Jews in Egypt around 215 years, FOR FREE. And I’m sure that none of their jobs were promoted as “win-win,” “career-boosting” opportunities for “go-getters” interested in “networking” and “gaining relevant experience,” you stupid cock. They had no choice to be enslaved and build the pyramids. I’m sure that people don’t have a choice to join an unpaid internsh….Oh wait. They do.

    “Sometimes, it’s enough to long for the days of the pyramids.” Yeah, sometimes I wish that my ancestors were still enslaved in Egypt, too.

    Maybe you could have brought up child slaves sewing together Nikes for cents per hour, or child slaves working produce fields in Mexico. Or you could have brought up workers in Vietnam, Bangladesh, China, the Philippines, and other countries that have crappy working conditions for people making our clothes.

    • http://twitter.com/bachbird Picket

      You’re making yourself look stupid, David.

      • David Sopkin

        It’s better to put yourself out there and speak up than be lazy on the sidelines criticizing people. But thanks for playing.

    • UMad

      Do you just not get written irony? “This is, of course, wildly inaccurate since the workers of ancient Egypt were much better paid” is written as a joke playing on the expectations. Obviously it’s inaccurate for the reasons you’ve listed, …that’s the joke there. And again, the last line … A joke. The reason why it’s trolling (and good trolling) is not just that he’s saying deliberately provocative things; he’s using those things as the premise with which to make an argument, then getting people who didn’t really read the piece to fall all over themselves making the argument he’s already making.

      Clearly, the life of an intern is better than the life of a slave in the ancient world. The argument that he’s making is that there are analogies to be made between the two and that the complexity of the intern world and the problems those loopholes raise make a hard situation harder. Just because someone makes an analogy between an outright atrocity and a modern inconvenience doesn’t mean it’s a direct comparison and it doesn’t mean they’re downplaying that atrocity.

      And if you had read the parts that didn’t involve the analogy, you would realize why he didn’t bring up those other cases. It’s a column about internships.

      • David Sopkin

        Oh snap! You totally just made it readable even for me, someone who obviously doesn’t get irony. It’s hard to see the “irony” in everything that JOG writes, but to call it “good” trolling is an overstatement. If I wanted a whiny explanation of my opinion I would have gone back to high school. #SoMadBro