Saturday, January 19, 2013

All is not to fair and equal in Intern Nation

I know that blogged about Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation before but after spending weeks interning in Shanghai, I have come to the conclusion that I am what Ross Perlin would describe an Intern Queen.

My reason for becoming such is simple; I chose to study  things that interested me and not areas that had economic value. Being an Intern Queen maybe is the curse of the Arts Grad.

I went through university being told that extracurricular activities (a.k.a internships) were the key to getting a graduate job, especially if you were doing Arts or wanted to get in to an industry that was particularly tough to break into.

As an Intern Queen, I’ve seen all kinds of internships: disasters, structured ones where you learn a great deal, unstructured internships in distant lands that are a whirlwind of experiences that challenge you personally and professionally and, more recently, one that is a combination of most of the above.

I’ve been stuck in a room on my own in the jungle with a boss whose only method of communication was Skype messaging, despite being in the next room. Another was everything that an internship should have been with interesting and challenging work that gave me an insight in to what I was good at as well as an exposure to the area that I was studying.

But from my experience and from reading Ross Perlin’s book, I’m beginning to understand that internships have value and not all internships have the same currency in the job market. I am also aware now from reading Intern Nation that internships are also quite unfair. 

But why do people need to do so many or focus on completing the more prestigious ones in order to get a foot in the door of paid employment in the knowledge economy?

Perlin argues that the reason comes down to ‘“systematic overinvestment” and employers upping the ante: increasingly it takes a prestigious internship or a string of [great] internships, to put you over the top’ (2011, 132)  

This means that while doing several internships is a positive thing but don’t be surprised when employers begin to make it necessary to have done bigger, better and more prestigious internships to get hired.    

The most obvious factor that makes internships unfair is that in many cases you either have to pay for the privilege or have to be willing to work for nothing during your internship. Either way, you have to have the financial backing to be able to participate.

I certainly wouldn't have been able to afford my current internship as an undergraduate and my parents wouldn't have paid for it either. 

But not having participating in internships can have consequences and, as Perlin argues, ‘Not having access to an internship can be the kiss of death if you want to move up in the world’. (2011, 165) It is especially true that not having done an internship can make getting a job so much harder if you have your eyes on the hard-to-get-into areas of the job market.

Perlin quotes, David Graeber who points out ‘It has become a fact of life in the United States that if you choose a career for any reason other than for the salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid. Graeber points out that in many professions – charitable work or literary criticism [even politics, international relations, events and arts management, broadcasting, journalism, international aid and development] for instance – “structures of exclusion” have excised for a long time, “but in recent decades fences have become fortresses”’ (ibid). The building of a fortress has come about from wealthy interns having the done the right internships with the right organisations to allow them entry to this fortress.

But there is another group that also get easy access and this leads into another level of inequality.

A less obvious factor in the inequality among the citizens/“want-to-be citizens” of Intern Nation is the rise of the what has many names but is essentially is the same thing; “Brilliant Young Thing”, “Pretty Young Thing” and “Professional Young Person”.

While this clip is pure satire and completely over the top, we’ve all seen people like this (without pettiness maybe) in the paper being celebrated for their for latest accomplishment, being the public face/voice of “youth” through sitting on every community, government and private business board available, or participating in some high achievement programme.

When it comes to finding a job post graduation, they have collected such an impressive array of experiences and contacts with which no ordinary person can compete. As a result, these Pretty Young Things are fast tracked into the internship programmes that are the red carpet to these hard-to-get-into-professions.

The very existence of these individuals perpetuates a winner-takes-all mentality and our society’s obsession with “Personalities”.

It’s not that these Brilliant Young Things are more qualified than anyone else or necessarily more capable than others it is just that their contacts and public profile get their application from the middle of the pile to being read. Either that or they received an invitation by an employer to apply (along with everyone else) for a programme knowing full well that they will be successful no matter who else applies.  The influence of contacts shows that this worries Perlin when he writes ‘Nepotism, cronyism and the lack of transparency remains the order of the day in filling many internship potions, even as people quietly admit that the situation is out of control’ (2011, 231)   

Correct me if I am wrong here but aren’t the whole point of internships meant to give people practical experience and an opportunity to transition from education to work or between sectors?

Now internships seem to be awarded to those who are already fully prepared to gain work in the knowledge economy rather than those need the assistance in making the transition.  The current system of internships, as Perlin quotes  ones of his interviewees, ‘enables those who have had some enabling’. (2011, 102)  
In summing up, Ross Perlin writes in Intern Nation ‘quietly and not-so quietly this “talent myth” has become an underlying justification for massive and grown inequality, runaway executive compensation a winner-takes-all economy and an intense focus on superstars’. (2011, 233) I would love to say that things may change but I somehow doubt that they will! Everyone who isn’t from an uber privileged (financially or socially) background will just have to work smarter and harder to gain a place in the knowledge economy.


Perlin, Ross. Intern Nation: How to earn nothing and learn little in the brave new economy. (London and New York: Verso, 2011)   

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