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.