Not too long ago, I was an unpaid intern. For English majors, this is not particularly unusual, the depressing 2013 realization of what Jim Frederick predicted in his 1997 Baffler essay “Internment Camp.” We have reached the point at which a flurry of lawsuits are necessary to illustrate the obvious inequality of the unpaid internship, but while the recent dissolution of the Condé Nast intern program might appear to be a step in the right direction, nothing will change until the media industry stops glamorizing its own exploitation.
Somewhere along the way, the internship became a sort of ritualized hazing. In many industries outside of the humanities, the intern class get paid something for their troubles—but even then that might not necessarily be a good thing. This group of grunts are expected to work and work and work—their health or anything else be damned.
In journalism and the publishing world, the unpaid internship has been entirely repackaged. It is now part of each writer’s own origin story, and is afforded the same badge of honor as ramen noodles and roommates. “It’s so valuable,” Fashionista editor Lauren Indrik sighed to the New York Times, reminiscing over her own 2008 Condé Nast internship and all “the morning and evening walks—in heels—before she could afford subway fare.” On Women’s Wear Daily, where the news of the internship program’s end first broke, the top comment complained, “Way to ruin it for future kids who need an internship in the field of journalism.” Another wrote, “It’s not supposed to be about money, it’s experience.” Well, goodbye to all that—outside of the classroom, a gold star isn’t enough, not in lieu of sustenance.
If an internship isn’t about the money, then what is the experience for? Most people take unpaid internships to help build a potential career and future, not for the sheer entertainment value—and reality television fodder—of it. The unpaid intern is expected to be quiet, obedient, and grateful—in other words, compliant. Not surprisingly, the unpaid intern is often female.
The intern issue, mostly a problem of the young, is only a symptom of what’s happening in the larger economy. The industries in which unpaid internships are most prevalent—journalism, publishing, and non-profits, among others—are the same industries most “disrupted” by the current tech-vogue in American business. It is perhaps appropriate then that on the same day the Daily Beast reported on the end of the Condé Nast internship program, it also threw out a call for a social media internship. The advertisement called for a potential intern who is a “news fanatic,” and asked for “some evidence” that applicants are “a creature of the Internet . . . your blog, Tumblr . . . cat-focused Facebook group . . . Don’t worry–we won’t judge you.” They also won’t pay you.
If the value of a thing is signaled by the price tag assigned to it, then what exactly is the point of writing at all? What is the point of art, history, literature, and all the other humanities? They won’t make you a billionaire. By devaluing entry-level work, the whole enterprise is devalued.
So here we are, the intern class. The so-called “Millennials.” The disposables. What is happening to us is only the beginning. An entire subset of human thought and creativity is being thrown out in the name of “innovation” and profit margins; as it turns out, in the gamble for our country’s future, the only stakes we are playing with are ourselves.