Ross Perlin’s new book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, offers an alarming picture of the global internship explosion. But it also shows why this is a class issue that an invigorated Left should see as a priority, and one where it can win.
You would be forgiven for mistaking the recent difference of view between the prime minister and his deputy over unpaid internships for a sign that the issue was one of political importance in Westminster. Only days after Nick Clegg had launched the Coalition’s policy on social mobility, decrying the very connections through which Clegg’s father had secured an internship for him, David Cameron had very publicly disclosed and defended his position on internships to the Daily Telegraph:
“In the modern world, of course you’re always going to have internships and interns — people who come and help in your office who come through all sorts of contacts, friendly, political, whatever. I do that and I’ll go on doing that. I feel very relaxed about it.”
Two months later, we can safely file it away as a bit of posturing ahead of the local elections. Indeed, even as the Telegraph interview was reverberating across newsdesks and Twitter, rightwing Labour MP Tom Harris was dismissing internships as a non-issue on the proverbial doorstep.
And yet internships are everywhere, and the questions they raise about inequality, labour relations and class are both urgent and serious. From the aspirational depictions in The Devil Wears Prada, The Hills and The City, to Westminster, media firms and non-profits, the internship phenomenon is spreading around the world, and infiltrating more and more sectors. Hard data are difficult to come by, largely because of the inherently ambiguous status of many internships, but Perlin cites a conservative estimate that between one and two million people participate in internships in the US each year, and reckons that the global total is “many times that”. Here in the UK, estimates suggest that one in five employers were planning to take on interns between May and September last year, and that 17 per cent of firms have used interns as a form of cheap labour . Perlin suggests that fully one third of internships are unpaid, but as he points out, their problems extend far beyond this:
“Internships quietly embody and promote inequalities of opportunity that we have been striving diligently to reduce in courts, schools, and communities. But even for those who can afford them, focused training and mentoring are vanishingly rare, as interns soon discover: most ultimately learn the ropes on their own if at all, on the sly if necessary. Employers dictate all the terms of hiring and employment: don’t expect protection from courts, unions, universities, or anyone else. Just as troubling is the devaluing of young people’s labor. Once you start “spinning” your work, it’s hard to stop. Once you’re told that your work isn’t worth anything, you stop taking pride in it, you stop giving it your best. A tacit mutual agreement sets in between supervisor and intern: I’ll write the letter of reference, you make the coffee. Instead of finding dynamic, character-building, entrepreneurial opportunities, despondent interns cycle through uncompensated, impotent roles, collecting nebulous lines on their CVs.” 
Interested parties turn a blind eye to the exploitation in internship schemes and of individual interns. For employers to admit that interns are employees would mean extending statutory employment protection to them and weaning themselves off a growing source of cheap - often free - labour; universities are often complicit in the exploitation of interns, in a messy trade-off of tuition fees, academic credit and professional course accreditation; and trade unions often remain unable or unwilling to address the complexities of organising and representing the most precarious workers, of which interns are a particularly glaring example. Interns themselves have absorbed the mantras about “experiential employment” and “personal branding”. And it must be said the stereotypical intern - getting a foot in the door to a glamorous career, thanks to a private income and family connections - hardly engenders much sympathy.
But Perlin’s book serves as a challenge to such thinking. Intended as “a step towards sanity and towards justice”, Intern Nation is a work of political economy which combines breadth of scope with depth of analysis. Perlin sets out the big picture, from the history of internships from their beginnings in medicine and the extension of the internship model into state and municipal government in the 1930s, to the internship explosion which began in the neoliberal 1980s and 1990s:
“The internship explosion, like any major shift in how people work and shape their careers, could not have occurred in isolation. Changing attitudes among lawmakers, educators, parents, and young people have all played a critical role…Post-industrial, networked capitalism has provided the ideal petri dish for the growth of internships, which are only one of the many forms of nonstandard or contingent labor that have mushroomed since the 1970s.” 
Perlin ascribes this shift to contingency to several factors, including the “revolt against work” by workers pushing for flexibility, the increase in participation in the labour force by women, the absorbtion by young workers of a self-image as entrepreneurs and free agents, and, crucially, the ability of employers to reap the rewards from flexibility by promoting the casualisation of the workforce, what Andrew Ross terms “flexploitation”. 
According to Perlin, another key shift since the Second World War has been the growing field of Human Resources. He presents statistics which show the number of Americans employed in labour relations grew from under 30,000 in 1946 to 53,000 in 1950 and 93,000 in 1960. This growth, which Alex Carey had earlier analysed as a propaganda drive on behalf of American capital , has helped ensure that the internship boom became a self-fulfilling prophecy. As Perlin writes:
“If many of these [HR] departments were first established to thwart or parley with labor unions, they have taken on a raft of much broader functions over the years. Finding a cost-effective method of recruiting new employees and replacing departing ones came to be considered one of their core responsibilities…At bigger firms, internships can be seen as part of the HR repertoire, one tool among others for advancing and justifying the HR profession on a wider stage. Internships have become part of an unstoppable, unimpeachable standard operating procedure.” 
Of course, the cost savings and other benefits to capital that result from the growth of internships and other forms of contingent labour; the deskilling and growth of low- or no-pay work, and the fact that young people not only continue to endure such exploitation, but return to companies such as Disney year after year for more of the same, are a classic reflection of the profound and ever increasing power imbalance between capital and labour. In one of the most interesting chapters, Perlin explores the political economy of internships in some detail, reflecting on the way that the notion of free labour has been exported from the home into the workplace, with a consequent benefit to corporate America of $2 billion from internships alone (2010 figures).
At a time when the neoliberal state is attacking education and social protections for the young, and presiding over soaring youth unemployment figures, it’s fairly clear that political and economic elites are doing this because they believe they can. And they may be joined in this pessimistic view by young people and their supporters themselves, who believe there is no alternative. But just as the struggle over education has been joined, and recognised as part of the wider class struggle, so the employment rights of interns must be seen in this wider context. Such legal protection as there is (and it does exist - unpaid internships are illegal, both in the UK and elsewhere) can be ignored by employers, politicians and understaffed enforcement agencies like HMRC only as long as unions and activists permit it. Meanwhile thousands of young people are either forced to perform menial tasks for no pay, or are excluded from internships altogether for lack of family support, and the rights of millions more workers, of all ages, are corroded by the dynamics of exploitation at the point of entry to the workforce.
Perlin’s closing chapter, Nothing to Lose But Your Cubicles, outlines an alternative to the current free-for-all, reminding us of the choices that employers, universities, trade unions, policy makers and interns themselves must make if this entrenched pattern of exploitation is to be changed. Prospective interns must discriminate between those openings that are offered openly and fairly, and those that are available to those with connections; between those that pay and those that don’t; and they must, as Perlin makes clear in his interview with New Left Project, know their rights. Employers must advertise positions in an open and transparent manner, provide a “strong training and mentoring component” , and seek advice on best practice and legal requirements from HR professionals, trade unions, employment lawyers and intern advocacy groups such as those listed below. Universities and colleges need to face their responsibilities, particularly by stopping the practice (probably more widespread in the US than in the UK) of making students pay to work, by assigning credits to work that students perform off campus. If such work is so vital to the course, then design modules that can teach the necessary skills as part of the on-campus curriculum.
Perlin, who interned in London in his early 20s, is careful to explore the extent and nature of internships, and resistance to exploitation, around the world. One or two chapters are particular to the US experience, but there is much in the rest of the book that will be of interest to the reader outside the US. This is the first serious and credible analysis of an issue which deserves further attention. As a parent of children seeking their first foothold in the workplace, as a university teacher who works with hundreds of young people doing the same, and as a trade unionist, my personal and professional interest drew me to this book, and I recommend it as a source of information, inspiration and provocation to anyone who thinks they neither can nor need to learn more about this profound social transformation going on behind the office door.
Intern Nation by Ross Perlin is published by Verso at £14.99
1. HM Cabinet Office (2011), Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility
2. Perlin, R (2011) Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. London: Verso pXV
3. Perlin (2011): 36
4. Perlin (2011): 38
5. Carey, A (1997), Taking The Risk Out of Democracy: Corporate Propaganda versus Freedom and Liberty. Chicago: University of Illinois Press. Chapter 9: The Human Relations Approach
6. Perlin (2011): 41
7. Perlin (2011): 209