Thirty-five hours a week. Unpaid. I wish I were surprised when I see offers like this.
As a Mainer who attended a state university, now living in the big (to me) city of Boston, I feel that a graduate program is necessary for me to overcome a skill and status gap resulting from my background. But unpaid-internship offers frequently come by way of mass emails from my publishing graduate program, boasting of opportunities to make something of myself.
As I sign my life away on ever more student loans, working as much as I can to defray them, it’s disconcerting to face an industry that won’t pay me for my work. I am intimidated by an industry that says my work will only earn experience and connections. Every intern knows the ephemeral value of these earnings. Whereas money directly translates to heat, food, transportation, stability, and legitimacy, gaining experience and making connections are vague goals that don’t necessarily result in careers.
No industry is above politics, and as politicians debate unemployment, unpaid internships emerge as a strange stepchild. An entry appears on our résumés, but are we employed? We work, but is that labor enough to earn a wage? The answers are as uncomfortable as they are clear. There is no wage gap wider than the one between nothing and something; there is no unemployment starker than working without compensation.
As students fall ever further into debt, as wages depress and dissipate entirely, young people need an ever-higher amount of wealth to vault past this pit of unpaid labor. Without family money, without living in an area with good jobs and good schools, the opportunity to accrue enough capital to be able to skip the need for paychecks becomes almost impossible.
The Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division requires that workers be paid at least minimum wage, as long as they are not trainees in programs that do not displace jobs and do not benefit the employer. Currently, it seems, most unpaid internships should be illegal, and yet, in the past few decades, they have become the model for entering many major industries. Unpaid internships have thrived in this legal twilight between outdated laws and unfunded enforcement.
School approval does not redeem unpaid internships—if anything, it makes them worse. Course credit does nothing to obviate the illegality of unpaid internships and only casts a sheen of legitimacy. Credit, after all, is never given, but paid for. If we were to see interns as workers as well as students and adults, we would see them paying to work, not once but twice: once to live, and a second time for credit.
As court cases are waged for back pay, the discussion of the rights of interns is delayed and the likelihood of using unpaid interns becomes higher, but even as the law churns in various courts, the moral, political, and economic consequences of unpaid internships, for the interns and the industries that use them, remain.
I want to work in publishing because it’s the business of articulating and distributing ideas—sometimes groundbreaking, sometimes disruptive, and sometimes clarifying. All I propose is a moment of clarity: please, step back and reconsider what unpaid internships mean. They cheapen the work of publishing: figuratively, in that a hard day’s work no longer means a day’s pay, and literally, in that a wage of zero forces a race to the bottom that excludes all but the wealthiest and the luckiest.
When the entrance to working in publishing is based on affordability rather than talent, passion, creativity, or perspective, the field inevitably shrinks. Until the publishing industry can collectively decide, both financially and in principle, to support its future, I fear the stubborn homogeneity of its workforce will leave it unprepared for a world of ever-changing markets, technologies, and people.
As a young worker in a precarious economy, passionate but anxious, ambitious but scared, all I ask for is mutuality. The internship paradigm has reoriented us to thinking that I alone must invest in myself, that I alone, or my family, must have money before I can be sellable, worthwhile. Demands such as these, especially from someone in the millennial generation, tend to come across as entitled. All I want, however, is what generations before the internship craze have received: a fair shake. I want to work for you. Welcome me, train me, pay me, and I promise that if you give me—if you give us—a chance, the investment will pay off. The bottom line, quite literally, is that if our work is worthwhile, we deserve to be paid for it.
Nicholas Moore is a publishing graduate student in Boston aiming to work in acquisitions.