cover image Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy

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

Ross Perlin, Verso, $22.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-84467-686-6

How many interns does it take to screw in a light bulb? Who cares, it's free. If that joke triggers cringe-inducing memories of schlepping coffee, Perlin, an intern turned intern activist, is your man. His exposé on the internship model initiates a critical conversation on internships—when are they exploitative and when are they necessary? can they help you land your dream job?—and his thoughtful book is necessary reading for the millions of young people trying to break into the working world through internships.

Perlin begins by casting a harsh light on Disney World's massive internship program, the Disney College Program, a so-called "educational experience" that is, in reality, a revolving door bringing in thousands of undergraduates—even high school students—who keep the Disney Magic alive by performing menial labor for meager wages. Perlin's exposé of Disney demonstrates his eye for irony as well as his gift for engaging the reader with a steady stream of insight, humor, and well-deployed anecdotes.

Perlin pivots from Disney villains to the evolution of the internship, a word borrowed from the French term "interne" used to describe junior medical men performing simple physician's tasks. He compares and contrasts internships with the fading practice of apprenticeships, investments of time and labor that actually gave young people a foothold in an industry, and reveals how the internship trend represents a change in how individuals conceive of work and their role in the economy. Perlin also teases out the class issues inherent in the intern debate—many young people who must support themselves simply cannot afford to take on an unpaid internship, no matter how great a career opportunity it might be.

But Perlin's most shocking revelation isn't that many internships are exploitative but that most are illegal. Companies of all sizes and across industries flout (with no consequences) the requirements outlined in the Fair Labor Standards Act to benefit from free labor. Perlin covers the complicity of colleges, many offering dubious internship programs aimed more at generating revenue for the school than benefiting students. Not even the federal government's massive, intensely competitive internship programs escape Perlin's scorn; he describes them as a hotbed of nepotism and squandered talent—but still, the right government internship is an all but necessary career step for an aspiring politician.

Fortunately, Perlin also offers hope and bright solutions, and ends the book with an Intern Bill of Rights and the observation that "a general strike of all interns would show all they contribute for the first time [and would bring] a delicious low-level chaos to the world's work." By Ben Zarov

Ben Zarov is an intern at Publishers Weekly, a graduate of Grinnell College, and an urban explorer.