Every Sunday Gothamist opens up and lets our friends and readers express themselves in opinion pieces, in this case the views shared are those of one Phoebe Maltz.

2006_05_21_cubicle.jpgWhat are interns? I've been an intern, but never an unpaid one, although I could imagine circumstances that would make taking such a position seem reasonable. The justification for an internship being unpaid is that the position is an educational experience for the intern; the transfer of goods is from the organization to the intern. While both a paid internship and a traditional job also serve as learning experiences for the employee, an unpaid internship ought to differ from these other situations in that the help provided by the intern to the organization is negligible. Which is what makes this ad so odd. How could an unpaid intern be "needed ASAP"? Here's a clue: "Duties include filing, setting up new filing system, creating and editing org charts, updating 401Ks and other files, assist Human Resources Director in all duties, etc." In other words, a job, a rather dull-sounding one at that, but with the special quality of not paying anything at all. 

This is just wrong.

I did plenty of filing--along with its cousin, book-shelving--during college, and the primary motivation to keep moving during a day of that sort of work is that, every two weeks or whatever, you will have money. You will also learn about the organization you’re working for, make contacts with those who do something other than file, help an organization whose mission you have some affinity for, but more importantly, you’ll learn what it’s like to work. You will experience that unique situation in which you are forced to do things you don’t feel like, to take everything from criticism to crap with a smile, when in all other conditions you’d respond indignantly, simply because your paycheck depends on it. Not all jobs require the taking of crap, but this is nevertheless a lesson worth learning, as a good number of them do.

The unpaid internship has expanded to encompass all manner of jobs formerly known as “secretary” or, more recently, “administrative assistant.” Don’t have much work experience? Want a foot in the door? A new, lower, yet somehow more respectable level of labor has been created just for you. Also important to note—the unpaid internship is not merely a summer-long or part-time position for a student who may not be expected to be bringing in much in the way of income—unpaid internships also exist for college graduates, including Harper’s Magazine, where college and post-college interns “work on a full-time, unpaid basis for three to five months.” (For what it’s worth, I’ve never applied to Harper’s, thus my comfort in using this magazine as an example).

The problem with unpaid internships is many-fold, but aside from the obvious—they screw over those who cannot afford to take them—their presence has warped the mentality of recent graduates. It now seems almost greedy to expect compensation, any compensation, for work. Not just non-profit work, but any work with even the slightest potential to be interesting, or to lead somewhere, or in a pleasant location, or… anything, really, that doesn’t involve a McDonalds uniform.

Postings inform the job-seeker that, while such and such position is unpaid, it provides a meaningful this that and the other, as though, if the employer were so crass as to make this a paid position, there must be something unpleasant about the position itself. And there may well be something unpleasant about the position itself—filing, anyone?—but if it is unpaid, the implication is that there must be some other, inherent value to the thing. By offering unpaid internships to post-college adults, organizations put it into the heads of people who are fully old enough to support themselves and arguably too old to rely on parental support that those who would choose paid work over an unpaid internship are only in it for the money.

Completion of an unpaid internship, unlike going back to school and earning a universally-acknowledged degree, is a less-than-certain way to increase future employability. That’s the difference between education and employment—the uncertainty inherent in what having any given job may mean for your resume is offset by the fact that, for the duration of your employment, you are compensated monetarily.

So, why are otherwise reasonable young adults in New York and beyond going along with this system? To put it bluntly, “intern” sounds better—i.e. more respectably upper-middle-class—than “secretary.” One would imagine that employee productivity is higher among the paid than the unpaid, but it may be that recent graduates find it more prestigious to put “intern” on their resumes than “administrative assistant,” and therefore will file and Xerox with more zeal if unpaid than if paid.

The extension of childhood—already a well-documented phenomenon—is in conflict with the rather natural, adult impulse to find a job. This conflict is reconciled by the existence of the unpaid internship. And so even those 20-somethings who would never think to ask their parents to fund a post-collegiate year exploring the world will reconcile themselves to the idea that continued parental support may be required even for those who spend Monday to Friday in an office.

You can find more of Phoebe Maltz's musings at What Would Phoebe Do?.
Office Cubicle by jpchan via Contribute.