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The internification of entry-level work

By Steph Guthrie

A recent New York Times article examined the evaporation of traditional entry-level work in favour of unpaid internships, particularly in “creative class” jobs. The anecdotes and statistics on 20-something workers’ low pay and long hours might sound all too familiar to many digital media workers.

The worst example of callous expectations for young workers was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a new media manager who said “We need to hire a 22-22-22” – as in 22 years old, 22 hours a day, $22,000 per year.

Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, noted the shift toward mandatory around-the-clock availability via email and social media as part of a broader blurring of boundaries between work and personal life. Tech firms (particularly start-ups) are known for colourful, open-concept workplaces with foosball tables and beer fridges. But these perks are often offered in thinly veiled exchange for wholesale devotion to the job.

Several factors influence the permeability of young workers’ boundaries between work and play, including the popular perception that we should do work that we love. Perlin also points to 20-something workers’ tendency to undervalue work involving social media, perhaps because they are so used to consuming it for free as part of their daily routines.

In his book, Perlin cites research indicating women are 77% more likely than men to have unpaid internships. Madeleine Schwartz argues in the quarterly Dissent that attributes most valued in interns (e.g. flexibility, submissiveness and gratitude) tend to be socialized more in women than men. Although the New York Times article didn’t highlight this gendered dimension, I noticed that every intern interviewed for the piece (besides Perlin) was female.

Just as ominous are the class implications – frankly, much of the population simply cannot afford to spend the first few of their earning years or months as an unpaid (or poorly paid) intern. While the resultant social mobility barriers for low-income and working class people are problematic enough, the internship imperative also limits the perspectives imbued in our collective output: cultural (e.g. films), functional (e.g. apps), and journalistic (e.g. news sites). The aggregate social impacts of the intern economy could be disastrous.

Have you taken an unpaid internship before? If so, what was your experience like? For support and resources, check out the Canadian Intern Association.

Steph Guthrie is the moderator of the MediaTech Commons. She’s an internet animator and a full-time feminist. You can join her at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here. Already a member? Log in here.

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