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Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

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Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

From January until March of this year, I was an intern at a national news show in Washington, D.C., where I fetched lunch, stocked the kitchen, and answered the phone. I had to shuttle videotapes, shelve them in the library, and then scrape the labels from them with my fingernails. I had to proofread the script, make copies of it, and then run those copies to the anchors inside the studio. I had to log incoming Associated Press footage, which was always either very stupid (newborn animals at the zoo) or very horrific (recovered footage of a jet plane blowing up on a runway in Siberia). I was paid nine dollars an hour (with overtime), given no health benefits, and worked on average 50 hours a week. The position, referred to as “Desk Assistant,” was supposed to last six months, but I quit after nine weeks.

Ross Perlin’s book Intern Nation is a critique of the kind of internships that make young people feel weak and replaceable. The book is published by Verso, a left-wing publisher of philosophers like Slavoj Žižek and Fredric Jameson, and aspires to fit into that category of indignant, long-form, anti-corporate journalism of which No Logo and Fast Food Nation are examples. This book-length exposé of internships, the first of its kind, is Perlin’s debut work, subtitled How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy. It reads itself like the work of an apprentice (of an intern?)—which is to say, it’s sincere but vague, articulate but hackneyed. The book feels like a solid magazine essay that’s been thinly stretched into 200-plus pages; its redundancies erode the credibility of the author and become very annoying.

Nevertheless, there’s substance here—anecdotes, history, and legal facts that are worth hearing. Perlin’s argument is that internships have become the front gate through which young people enter white-collar bureaucracy. Yet, many internships are manipulative, no more than unpaid grunt work that saves a company money, hazes an aspiring employee, and excludes those who can’t afford or don’t have the social connections for such a position. Moreover, the popularity of interning seems linked to a broader wave of contingent and precarious labor conditions, in which it’s accepted that professional work may be short-term and without benefits like health care or a pension.

With regard to the legal status of interns, Perlin shows how, unless they receive formal, vocational-type training (training that doesn’t immediately benefit the employer), an intern should be considered an employee and covered by the Fair Labor and Standards Act.

Perlin digs up intern horror stories: a Disney World intern receiving a negative paycheck after rent was subtracted; a social-work intern who was sexually harassed, but couldn’t sue the offender because, as an intern, she wasn’t considered a legal employee, and as such wasn’t protected by the Civil Rights Act; an unpaid NBC intern in New York City who had to sleep on a rotation of over 20 friends’ couches the entire summer because he couldn’t afford rent. Perlin also nicely bashes the Obama White House and how it euphemistically refers to its unpaid interns as “answering the call to service.”

With regard to the legal status of interns, Perlin shows how, unless they receive formal, vocational-type training (training that doesn’t immediately benefit the employer), an intern should be considered an employee and covered by the Fair Labor and Standards Act. Since many interns aren’t being formally trained, instead just performing low-level secretarial work, then their unpaid, precarious employment is illegal. As if this weren’t flagrant enough, Perlin also looks at how universities are taking advantage of internships to charge students extra tuition, as well as how places like the University of Dreams is charging young people thousands of dollars to intern at prestigious companies and in glamorous foreign cities.

Yet, Perlin seems too eager to voice the complaints and pieties of the anti-corporate, anti-globalization critic (the title of his final chapter is “Nothing to Lose But Your Cubicles”). In doing so, he’s hesitant to look at the many cases of internships that actually work, that pay well, that instruct, that induct a young person into the white-collar world. Nor does he really ask whether the groveling intern is more often found in certain industries (media, politics, entertainment) than others (engineering, science, law) and why that may be (the internship as a spirit-crushing initiation ritual vs. the internship as a nurturing of young talent).

Overall, Intern Nation asks some serious questions about labor and internships and how young people make it into the world these days. It also has a nice cover image (little yellow Lego men hoisting a cup of coffee). But is it worth spending your time to read the whole thing instead of just looking at Perlin’s articles on the same subject in places like Lapham’s Quarterly or Guernica? Not particularly. The intern in me respected this book, but the reader in me found it tedious.

Ross Perlin’s Intern Nation was released on May 9 by Verso. To purchase it, click here.