Less than Zero
The value of intern labor in an age of economic inequality
Roger D. Hodge
How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy
by Ross Perlin
$22.95 List Price
The most telling characteristics of a society are often those that pass unnoticed. No one pays much attention to interns, for instance, yet the simple fact that at any given time hundreds of thousands of jobs are being performed for little or no pay is surely an important development in our political economy. Perhaps it says something about the value we place on work. According to Ross Perlin, the author of Intern Nation, the rise of this relatively new employment category, which is taken for granted by everyone from the antiunion governor of Wisconsin to the managers of Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, is a clear indication of the decline of labor rights in the United States.
Definitions of what exactly constitutes an internship vary widely. Are interns trainees, temps, apprentices, servants? Since the rules are vague or at least unenforced, employers simply fill in the blank with whatever tasks need doing, and interns often end up stuffing envelopes, fetching coffee, answering the phone, or collecting the boss’s dry cleaning. Not all their work is trivial, of course, and some internships offer useful training, but it is safe to say that vast numbers of interns are condemned to performing the mundane, vaguely humiliating chores that are the necessary if despised conditions of life in the white-collar world of work to which so many young people aspire. Far from providing an educational benefit or vocational training, internships have simply become, for many businesses, a convenient means of minimizing labor costs.
The College Employment Research Institute estimates that