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Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Intern Nation

Interns are big news in the UK, with both the upper-middle-class leaders (David Cameron and Nick Clegg) of the government having had lengthy internships which were found through family connections. The general feeling is that internships, whether it be for a political office or for Magnum photos, limit social mobility and narrow the diversity of practictioners in photography, the arts, journalism and the arts, not to mention politics. Part of the problem then, not part of the solution. A Photo Editor had a fine example of this with Steve McCurry's call for an unpaid intern. Who can afford this? Well we know who can afford this - rich people. And if you'll excuse a gross and sometimes inaccurate generalisation, let's make a correlation between excessive wealth and deep-seated ignorance. So we know who will be doing all the fun, 'creative' (a misnomer if ever I heard one) jobs, running our newspapers, art galleries and TV stations in the future. Or now even? No change there, then. Carry on everybody.

'Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy,' by Ross Perlin details the history of internship, how internships have replaced paid apprenticeships and a career ladder that, in photography and journalism at least, sometimes included more than just the filthy rich (sorry middle classes).

In other words, the only reason that there are so many interns is because we have made it acceptable. It wasn't always that way and it doesn't have to be that way. The book was reviewed in the Guardian this weekend and this is where the quotes below are from. See the full review here.

I think the most interesting point is the idea that a person is a brand and that one should act as a brand. We all know people who do this, but really. Grow up and become a human, get out from under your rock. Being a brand, acting like a brand, having that combination of self-delusion and grandeur is just the mark of an asshole. Anyway, this is what the review says.

This book is important because Perlin has spotted that the internship phenomenon is a symptom of broader changes in business and the psyche of the middle-class worker. The increasingly entrepreneurial mindset of young professionals, seeing themselves as brands that require investment, such as unpaid work, to get established; the assumption of most companies that, executive salaries aside, labour costs should be ruthlessly minimised; the vogue for things being given away or done for "free", in business strategies and even political programmes such as Cameron's Big Society – all these trends may make the internship the quintessential modern workplace experience.

Half a century ago it was very different. "Almost no one worked for free in the offices of mid-century America," points out Perlin. Instead, there were paid apprenticeships and structured training programmes, sometimes oppressive and stifling compared to the open-ended experiences of the luckiest or most able of today's interns, but more egalitarian: parental financial support or personal connections were much less essential for the aspiring young professional. 

Yet the social costs are considerable. Besides the exploitation, boredom and cynicism that blight many internships – trying to look busy for days on end in return for a line on your CV – there is also their infantilising quality. Perlin interviews many serial interns: deep into their 20s, and already burdened with debts from university, they are still not earning, still without a solid career trajectory, still living with their parents, still only semi-adult. The steep rise in youth unemployment across the world since the financial crisis has made the job prospects of these perpetual interns even worse.


observations said...

that's pretty interesting having recently worked with an 'almost 30'colleague who had 3 amazing internships under her belt, huge university debts, was onto her 2nd paid working experience and as she contemplated leaving was considering another internship as an option ! she left the job, moved in with dad and is freelancing out yonder..
does this pull in the discussion of 'generation x' who have grown up expecting that it is their right to have it all ?

colin pantall said...

If your colleague is expecting it is her right to have it all, I'm guessing she's cottoned on to the fact that it's not the case.

I'm from the UK - I don't know anybody who has grown up with the expectations you mention. But then the circles I mix in are pretty humble. Now if you're talking generation xers who lack ambition and just drift on by - now we're talking!