Feature photo courtesy of Vulcanpost.com
And no, I’m not making you a cup of coffee, thank you very much!
In medieval times, anyone looking to master a craft would first have to work at the mercy of an expert. The hours were long, the pay nonexistent, and the requirements so taxing that they obliterated the possibility of achieving work-life balance. This would normally continue for years, with the student struggling to climb the predecessor of the corporate ladder until the teacher was satisfied enough to relieve them of their obligation. If this happened in the present day, labor unions would consider this treatment tantamount to slavery. Lawsuits would be filed left and right, and ultimately, these unfortunate workers would lobby for a revisitation of their rights.
But the catch is that this is, in fact, an ongoing phenomenon - only now it takes the form of the unpaid internship. These less-than-ideal conditions have been repackaged as an all-access pass to a promising future: an opportunity to learn skills indispensable to one’s chosen field, network with like-minded individuals, confirm or maybe even realign career interests. We know this, and witness undergraduate students knock at companies’ proverbial doors and clamor to get in. Maybe we’ve done so ourselves. But in recent times, we have failed to assess how internships have evolved into a rich source of social capital as well.
According to a study conducted by Sophie Hope and Joanna Figiel of the University of London, people now see internships as a way of maintaining their self-appreciation while also avoiding depreciation in a human capital regime. It’s no secret that we are appraised according to the skills and experiences we attain, and how well these can be translated into marketable, profitable output—this goes for both prospective employers and peers. Thus, it’s become commonplace for us to glorify those who can balance endless responsibilities and churn out high-quality work at a steady pace, be it for academics, student organizations, or small businesses.
With social media, we have unmediated access to others’ lives as well as the myriad of reasons as to why theirs are better than ours, especially in our current context. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been on LinkedIn almost every day: at first, it was because I was in search of job openings myself, but nowadays I do it reflexively, with no good reason, since it only ever takes Command-T + L + enter to get to the website. Each day, I am greeted by a sea of fancy headshots and multi-hyphenated display names, proclaiming that they clinched their dream jobs after going through a rigorous and selective application process. It’s common courtesy to extend congratulatory remarks, with the optional emoji of clinking glasses of champagne.
Basically, our generation’s discontent with prolonged periods of inactivity necessitates that we compensate for them with sudden bursts of hyperproductivity. By normalizing this, we do not only isolate those who fail to keep up; we also pave the way for working conditions that are unsatisfying at best and inhuman at worst. Unpaid internships breed a system which favors the privileged, pushes the middle-class to make sacrifices, and excludes those who literally cannot afford to do the same.
Students from lower-income families may have to rely on side hustles all throughout college to afford tuition, even if it means settling for jobs outside or below one’s skill level. This could have negative long-term effects on academic performance and consequently, employability. Anthony Carnevale and Nicole Smith of Georgetown University claim that nearly 60% of students who work 15 or more hours had a “C” average or lower because the time allotted for answering assignments is spent earning minimum wage to make ends meet. Meanwhile, their richer counterparts are free to pursue career-advancing opportunities even without payment, which gives them an advantage upon graduation. This creates a vicious cycle that rewards students who are already ahead of the game, while ramping up the competition for those who desperately need employment.
This holds true for most industries, but is particularly rampant in creative fields, with 86% of them considered unpaid. As a result, we get fashion house interns who enter the workforce with nothing in their arsenal but a comprehensive knowledge of every order on the Starbucks Secret Menu. We see aspiring broadcasters expected to pack up all their belongings, move to Chicago or New York on such short notice, and be ready to shoulder all expenses. And who could forget the Black Swan crew members that fought for their unpaid labor to be classified as work, and only received a settlement from Fox Searchlight Pictures five years later?
Obviously, the solution this essay seeks is to pay interns. Companies often feign deafness at this point, thinking that it’s nothing but an unnecessary expense when it actually benefits both parties involved. Paying interns attracts interest from qualified candidates by offering a more attractive opportunity. In addition, since companies are paying good money for these prospective employees, they’re more likely to challenge and develop this new talent to pursue added value, rather than assign them inconsequential, menial tasks. Requiring an upfront investment in new talent increases company productivity while also screening pipeline candidates before hiring them onboard full-time.
But expecting every firm to give monetary compensation sounds like a lofty ambition when not all of them have the financial capacity or other means to do so. This doesn’t absolve them, though, of their responsibility to seek out other forms of remuneration. This could be in the form of tangible goods like free products from the company, tokens and certificates of appreciation, or transportation and food subsidies. These are best coupled with recommendation letters, valuable mentorships, or offers for immediate employment directly after graduation. Expectations and rewards must be clearly communicated to interns, and should come to fruition by the time they’ve finished rendering service.
This system overhaul won’t occur any time in the foreseeable future, if I’m being frank. I can already smell organizations struggling to find loopholes to justify their go-to cost saving tactic. While we wait for them to come to their senses and accept this demand as a call to basic human decency, we can do our part in lessening the toxicity that surrounds internship culture. Perhaps we can stop perpetuating the false notion that more experience is all it takes to land a job, when human resource employees also take academic performance and interview responses into consideration. We could also work on detaching our self-worth from the commitments we take on, and refraining from spreading ourselves so thin that we can barely recognize ourselves.
After all, what is the point of achieving this level of personal and professional fulfillment that these programs promise if we’ve been too burnt out and beaten up to enjoy it?