It’s that time of year again, guys. Cue up your resumes and get in line for the privilege of partaking in the American job market’s latest version of “working your way up” — the unpaid internship. Unfortunately, I only mean that half-ironically.
The moral bankruptcy of unpaid internships goes beyond wage theft, market-wide wage suppression for entry-level work and on-site exploitation. Unpaid internships also perpetuate class privilege. In other words, unpaid internships favor rich and upper-middle-class people over the rest of society. They favor individuals living in or near urban centers, where rent and costs of living are typically higher.
In New York City, for example, rent will set you back $900 a month, if you’re lucky. Add on $112 per month for an unlimited MetroCard to physically get to your internship. Lump food and utilities together for around $300 per month. That puts us at $1,312 before accounting for unforeseen expenses or a social life.
In order to apply for an unpaid position, you must have some sort of plan for supporting yourself. Oftentimes this means dipping into savings accounts, asking parents for financial support or working an extra job to make ends meet. For many students, these options are simply unavailable.
Students who cannot afford to take unpaid internships are left with few options. Paid internships in fields such as media, government and the arts are in extremely short supply. The few that exist are highly competitive. Funding opportunities such as Binghamton University’s Sodexo scholarships are, debatably, a step in the right direction, but cannot accommodate all or even a majority of unpaid positions.
If we are to believe that internship experience makes one a better job candidate, our current societal schema of predominantly unpaid internships takes today’s privileged students and turns them into tomorrow’s privileged professionals. In a country where income inequality increasingly threatens social and political stability, can we afford to perpetuate another system that favors the well-endowed over the less privileged?
I wish that I could wholeheartedly advocate for some sort of unpaid internship boycott, but that’s exceedingly unrealistic in a world where working for free is becoming synonymous with “paying your dues.” We can only hope that the courts continue to rule in favor of unpaid interns, such as in the case of Glatt v. Fox Searchlight Pictures Inc., until it is explicitly illegal or too risky to employ unpaid interns in place of entry-level employees.
Until then, we will continue to be burdened by the perpetuation of class privilege through unpaid internships. So many of us are willing to jump through the fiery hoops that we hope will lead to meaningful careers. For now, the problem remains that we can’t all afford a ticket to the circus.