The New Wageless Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

By Ross Perlin
Verso Books, 2011

Reviewed by Joe Berry

Of all the literature produced on the casualization of the workforce and the conversion of good jobs to  bad jobs in the U.S. and worldwide, it’s remarkable that Perlin’s Intern Nation is the first critical research-based book-length examination of this wildly increasing segment of the labor force. Actually, a good part of the book is devoted to explaining, directly and indirectly, why this is the case. Within this lies a story that is both archetypal of the new neoliberalized workforce, especially for educated white-collar workers, and at the same time unique and distinctive because of its makeup of the mostly young workers and the inherently temporary nature of the jobs. And I do mean “jobs.” One of Perlin’s main points is that internships are jobs. The vast majority, whether paid or unpaid, clearly fall far outside the U.S. Department of Labor’s definition of a legitimate trainee exemption from the criteria laid out and supposedly enforced by the Wage and Hour Division. The criteria, all of which must be met, are: The training, even though it includes actual operation of the  facilities of the employer, is similar to that which would be given in a vocational school.

The training is for the benefit of the trainee. The trainees do not displace regular employees, but work under close observation. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.

The trainees are not necessarily entitled to a job at the completion of the training period.

The employer and the trainee understand that the trainees are not entitled to wages for the time spent in training.

These are meant to be guidelines for the enforcement of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the basic U.S. law defining hours of work, minimum pay, and other conditions. Just as university  employers have contended that graduate employees weren’t really employees but students, most users of interns argue that either because they have a relationship with some college providing  credit or because they provide an educational experience of some sort, they should be freed from paying minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, and other requirements of the FLSA. One  of Perlin’s main points isthat internships are jobs.

Most internships, as Perlin makes clear, violate one of these criteria, especially that employers should not receive “immediate advantage” from the activities of the non-employee intern. Perlin demonstrates, all across the economy and across international borders, that interns are basically cheap, essential labor for their employers, from Chinese vocational students who are forced to endure internships on the line at Foxconn making iPods, iPads, and iPhones for the world market, to Washington D.C. interns in either government or related NGOs and associations. Employers simply could not function without this cheap labor.

Along with examining how internships violate Labor Department guidelines, Perlin tells an extremely readable story. His first chapter, entitled “The Happiest Interns in the World,” is about the massive number of interns in the Disney empire. His history of the political economy of the explosion of internships is clear and appropriately linked to the rise of neoliberalism worldwide. The role of  institutions of higher education in the aiding and abetting of this, through lack of government enforcement of labor laws and the promotion of false “experiential learning,” also for their own profit,  comes in for close and often amusing examination. The failures of the labor movement and of labor- related academics to do anything but exacerbate this trend is not omitted. The description of the rise of the industry of internship placements and sales is as scary as anything you’ve read about the cram schools of Japan. Perlin ends the book with chapters detailing the resistance that has developed, a call for reform, and a proposed “Intern Bill of Rights.”

As Perlin describes, internships have come to cover much of the white-collar economy, but they have not developed in the way that apprenticeships have with government regulation of both instructional content and pay and benefits provided, and joint union-employer boards in many occupations. This has been partly because of a lack of government regulation, the absence of unions in most of these white-collar employment settings, and the culture of white-collar professional work and higher education that argues for deferred gratification and “psychic” wages and that values prestige over money in some instances. He grapples with the actual definition of “intern,” which is more complex than it might seem, and traces its origins to the professionalization of medicine and the use of interns as trainees who also carried a great deal of responsibility.

Part of the problem with internships is that they are so loosely defined, especially in the United States.  Most interns, as Perlin describes them, do actual work that is needed by the employer, whether it is go-fer work, errands and personal services for bosses and executives, routine office work that has not been or can’t be automated, or sometimes very high-level writing, analysis, research, or translation work that is clearly important to the success of the enterprise. And yes, there are interns who come in because of family pull with the boss or with a leading donor on the board of trustees of a non-profit and basically do nothing but treat the workplace as a playground as they accumulate a line on their resume for future use.

Even to someone who has spent decades studying contingent employment and its growth, the figures  are staggering. Perlin cites estimates of one to two million internships annually in the U.S. and says  this “does not begin to account for internships taken by community college students, graduate students, recent graduates, and others—all major growth areas” (pp. 27-28). Internships, about half of which are unpaid or paid less than minimum wage,  have become an essential bar to be jumped on the way to decent white-collar professional and even semi-professional work. Perlin further points out that this is especially true—and the internships are especially exploitative—for those jobs that are involved in shaping the very culture that we live in: media, entertainment, and sports.

And internships are not just cheap labor. The situation bears all the characteristics of the rest of the casualizing workforce. Precarious workers cannot say no when asked to do inappropriate things, up to and including reported cases of intern prostitutes, young girls in Holland who are purportedly  learning” to be prostitutes.

His stories of desperate parents and young undergraduates and graduates not just flocking to available internships but, in many cases, paying big money to go-betweens to acquire these essential
resume lines must raise ambivalent feelings in any reader. Ambivalent because, on the one hand, one must feel empathy for those driven to such extreme measures by the fear that they or their children will not succeed in the increasingly harsh competition for the good jobs. On the other hand, as Perlin clearly dissects, like so much else in the American economy, the game is rigged.

The factor that keeps a reader only ambiguously sympathetic to the victims is that the entire system is so incredibly undemocratic. Who, after all, can afford to pay money to work for free and often thereby  give up the opportunity to work for money during an extended period of weeks and months, as most  internships demand? The answer, of course, is the wealthy, their children and those of the middle class who are willing to in debt themselves even more on the long shot bet that this particular internship will be worth the “investment” in their “human capital” for them to come out a winner in the slot machine that is the labor market for decent work today. Perlin makes very clear that the top internships in the most prestigious magazines and offices are the most likely to be unpaid, the most competitive, the hardest to get, and the least likely to be available either economically or politically to the average mass of college students and recent graduates. Ross Perlin has plenty of international experience himself, which lends the book an international cast that is much appreciated. He has gone to school in the United States (at Stanford) and in England (at Cambridge), and has lived, working as a researcher, in China. While most of the book is U.S.-based, it has a healthy dose of British and other European reporting as well as deeply disturbing reports of the growth of exploitative internships in China and throughout Asia.

While most of the book is U.S.-based, it has a healthy dose of European reporting as well as disturbing reports of the growth of exploitative internships throughout Asia.

The book has a couple of surprising holes, as well as a less than exciting title. In his history of internships and related training, Perlin completely omits the experience of student teaching, a nearly universal and, until recently, universally unpaid mandate for all candidates for K-12 public school  teaching certificates in the U.S. He also, in an otherwise well-done history of co-op learning, omits the Antioch College story, probably the best known experience of undergrad internships as an integral part of a degree program. To this reader, as a labor educator and longtime contingent worker and organizer of contingent workers, the most wonderful story in the book was about the appearance—in 2004, in a Milan supermarket—of the saint, San Precario, the patron saint of interns and all casual, undocumented, and contingent workers: “’San Precario’ is a creation of Chain workers, a group of Milanese activists, [comparable to Adbusters] who are known more for media activism and anarcho-syndicalist organizing than for Catholic devotion” (p. 197). One of the movement’s organizers
describes the Saint as speaking to “being unable to plan one’s time; being a worker on-call where your life and time is determined by external forces.” The Saint apparently appears “in public spaces,  on occasions of rallies, marches, interventions, demonstrations, film festivals, fashion parades, and being a Saint, processions. San Precario is also trans-gender.” Officially, the Saint’s day is February 29th, the only “intermittent day” on the calendar. But his power is most visible on May 1, the new EuroMayDay. This story of the rise of a unified contingent worker movement is, by far, the best news of the book.


New Labor Forum 21(2): 112-123, Spring 2012
Copyright © Joseph S. Murphy Institute, CUNY
ISSN: 1095-7960/12 print, DOI: 10.4179/NLF.212.0000017