How Unpaid Internships Perpetuate Rampant Inequality in the US

There is a job opening! It seems perfect—full time, in the non-profit sector, based in New York City. It's obviously a prestigious position—they're looking to hire someone with at least a masters’ degree, though in certain cases this can be interchangeable with five years of related work experience. There's only one small problem: it's unpaid.

According to statistics from the National Association for Colleges and Employers, the number of students at four-year colleges who took internships increased from nine percent to more than 80 percent between 1992 and 2008. Once the economy crashed, and a paying job became a luxury rather than a fact of life, many  jobs were re-packaged as internships, promising experience and career connections in exchange for free labor.

Recent graduates, disturbed by the dearth of job opportunities, began to take internships as a last resort to stay competitive in the labor market. Although an internship used to be akin to an apprenticeship—a temporary stint of unpaid, hands-on labor resulting in an eventual job offer—the explosion of both college students and recent graduates taking internships no longer guarantees a paid position. Instead, as more and more young people demonstrated they were willing to supply an unpaid labor force so long as it was framed as an “internship,” internships have become a means for companies and non-profit organizations to re-package once paying jobs and cut corners in a tight economy.

Internships are the new entry-level job—the same duties and basic experience, only this time without compensation or benefits.

Statistics show that half of all internships are paid, but most of these positions are extraordinarily competitive, and unsurprisingly concentrated in the financial sector. Certain internships in other industries offer a small stipend, but hardly anything that is adequate to subsist on, especially in a major city. The worst offenders list positions as “paid” only to reveal that compensation is in the form of lunch or a monthly metrocard.

Even if they are paid, interns do not enjoy the benefits—health insurance, dental insurance, or even legal protection from sexual harassment—of a full-time employee. Organizations are not committed to interns; interns have learned to understand themselves as temporary hires, drifting through the labor market promising uncompensated labor in exchange for experience, connections and a “foot in the door” in their industry of choice—but no job.

It's becoming more and more expected for college students to have had at least one, if not several, internships by the time they graduate. Students that come from a privileged background, with parents who are willing and able to finance sometimes serial internships, are able to survive in internship culture financially unscathed. Eventually, they intern for long enough to make the connections necessary to break into the white-collar world. But students from lower- or even middle-income backgrounds feel financially stressed taking on unpaid work, but many do anyway to compete with their more privileged peers in the job market. As interning becomes more ubiquitous, and the possibility of an eventual job offer narrows, this becomes a greater and greater financial sacrifice.

Furthermore, relocating to another city, often with a much higher cost of living, is expensive, and doing this without a steady income is a huge financial burden. Many current students and recent graduates are already significantly in debt from student loans, and with the rising cost of college have to dig themselves even further in debt because of the social pressure to work for free as an “investment.”

“It’s like buying a lotto ticket, but for a lot more than a few dollars at a local gas station,” Josh Montes, a senior at Cornell University, tells me. During his college career, Montes has held four different internships, three of which were unpaid, mostly financed by odd jobs he worked while interning full time, as well as his savings from working while he was in high school.

“It adds up, and it’s completely defective if you want to succeed," says Montes. "Some families can afford to pay for their son or daughter to have an internship. However, if you are from a lower-income background, you need to provide for yourself through loans and grants--if you can get them-- or from generous family members who probably can’t afford it anyway. It is a financial burden that other students simply don’t have to face.”

As family incomes stagnate, and tuition rises at an average of five percent across the board for both public and private schools, many students are too busy trying to put themselves through college to consider the financial burden of an unpaid internship. Although these students are sometimes able to make the necessary money to make ends meet at two, and sometimes three jobs, many are anxious that internship culture is leaving them behind by systematically favoring students and graduates from wealthier backgrounds.

“I would like to intern—it seems like it would be interesting,” Matthew, another college senior who works multiple jobs in order to put himself through school, tells me. “Plus I feel like my friends who intern are ahead of me in the job market. Those of us who have to work are left behind.”

Matthew is not alone; thousands of students work multiple service industry jobs at every hour possible while their more privileged peers are able to work, albeit unpaid, from nine to five. Though they are earning money, the feeling of exclusion is palpable, both from their friends’ experiences, and the eventual white-collar opportunities they may never access, despite a college degree.

Internships have largely eradicated the possibility of breaking into the white-collar world through a salaried position, and internship culture has become a source of class division, favoring the privileged, pressuring others into financial sacrifices, and excluding others altogether. Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps is an increasingly rare phenomenon—and for this generation, is quickly becoming mythical. Now, it's understood that those who become the collective white collar of the world—the business managers, lawyers, investment bankers, television anchors, and politicians—are selected at a young age. That selection process, despite our supposed American values, is grounded in the privilege and pedigree of the elite.


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