They Do It for Free! The Inner Lives of Interns

In the summer of 1996, without really trying, I secured an internship at Condé Nast. It was an unlikely turn of events for someone who had no publishing connections and who, just weeks earlier, had entered the building as a temp on a yearlong break from college. The temp placement agency had installed me at Vogue, as the assistant to the executive fashion editor. (I’ll spare you the Devil Wears Prada details, because there weren’t any.)

After my stint was up at that magazine, I continued roving around the building, warming vacant seats until permanent replacements could be found. Somewhere along the way, I got a lead on an internship–something I hadn’t known existed, because such opportunities, as the HR person confessed, were usually reserved for the relatives of mucky-mucks. Still, on the basis of an editor’s recommendation, I received a marketing internship at Condé Nast Traveller, where I spent two months largely ignored, ghostwriting the publisher’s letters for promotional mailings.

I was lucky: That internship gave a lost summer the patina of respectability and paid more than my $9-an-hour temping gig. Similar jobs are few and far between these days, even while internships are now essential for nabbing good jobs after college. Ross Perlin, in Intern Nation (Verso, 288 pages, $22.95), documents the relatively new, and almost entirely despicable, rise of the unpaid internship, which scores of college students and recent grads feel they must accept–whether or not they can afford to. Even Condé Nast now offers only “for credit” (read: unpaid) summer positions.

Intern Nation is billed as the “first exposé” of the culture of internships, but actually it revisits much of the same territory Jim Frederick covered in his 1997 Baffler magazine essay “Internment Camp.” Mr. Frederick writes, “With all the books, magazine articles, and pundits barraging us with an alarmingly unified rhetoric of, ‘Internships give you the edge in a competitive job market,’ ‘It’s a win-win situation for both employer and intern,’ and ‘It’s not a job, it’s an education,’ it’s easy to forget that internships are practically free money for big business. It’s easy to forget that the kids are getting royally screwed.”

They’re still getting screwed, only now there are more of them, Mr. Perlin writes. A recent study by Phil Gardner of the College Employment Research Institute found that between 70 and 75 percent of students at four-year colleges had done at least one internship; in 1993, only 26 percent of college grads hired that year had been interns, according to a Northwestern University study. Interns are everywhere–fetching coffee on movie sets, helping draft legislation in congressional offices, and flipping burgers at Disney World–often working for little or no pay. Even Brad Pitt, an architecture enthusiast, couldn’t resist taking an “informal apprenticeship” at Frank Gehry’s office. Just as the right schools can determine one’s future, the thinking goes, so can the right internship.

They Do It for Free! The Inner Lives of Interns