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The 3 big myths propping up unpaid internships
Employers understandably embrace them, but why do the rest of us?
 
Fear not, young interns: this will land you the office experience you've been missing.
Fear not, young interns: this will land you the office experience you've been missing. (Thinkstock)

Despite lawsuits, the unpaid internship has come to seem like an inevitable fact of life. Some entry-level jobs, we hear, are too glamorous to pay. We learn that most young people, while eager, just aren't prepared for the workforce. We are led to believe that the economy is still too weak to hire them; businesses want to pay, but budgets simply have no room.

These three givens are actually myths, understandably embraced by employers, yet, more mysteriously, accepted as fact by the rest of us. So allow me to dispel them one by one:

1. Day jobs vs dream jobs

The first such myth is that there are two hard-and-fast categories: day jobs and dream jobs. If you're working for nothing, it's because you're doing (as Miya Tokumitsu nicely deconstructed) "what you love." This framework used to make sense. Someone might dream of being a novelist, but takes an office job to pay the bills. Yet more and more day jobs are recast as starving-artist pursuits. The dream job used to involve being an artist. Now, it's working at an arts organization.

Or any organization. A job too dreamy to pay could be at a pizza place. If you know Russian or Albanian, you're in luck: You're a contender for an unpaid tax accountant internship. (Wouldn't we all like an "unpaid intern" to do our taxes?) That a job now has any redeeming qualities whatsoever beyond the paycheck — and most do — means the paycheck itself can be eliminated with minimal outcry.

2. Grads just need the training first

Now onto the second myth: the unprepared grad, the decadent millennial, too strung out on farmers market chard to think about rent. It's easy to forget that "prepared" is subjective.

Today, even internships demand extensive related experience, such as this six-month publishing one, which seeks candidates with "[g]raduate-level work in English, literature, or a related discipline" as well as "previous office experience." What, then, does one get in exchange? "Upon completion of the internship, interns will be prepared for entry-level positions at literary agencies and in the editorial or publicity departments of publishers." I'd think that if an English grad with office experience is prepared for anything, it would be just the sort of entry-level positions described. Alas, no more.

Meanwhile it's not clear that the work done strictly for "previous office experience" counts for much. It was recently reported that unpaid interns are only 1.8 percent more likely to get hired than graduating seniors who didn't intern, and they end up getting paid less. As Ross Perlin described in Intern Nation, one internship often leads to another... and another... and another.

3. Companies just can't afford to pay

The third myth is that companies can't afford to pay their interns. We may nod along until we remember that "afford," too, is subjective. If workers only show up if they get paid, a company will account for that expense. But once that changes, those funds will be reallocated. Profitable, not especially glamorous industries like "healthcare consulting" and "Information Management" have discovered that they, too, can find free labor.

What these three myths have in common is that they're circular. Once there's a workforce prepared to do a particular job unpaid, it becomes one for which it would be unrealistic to expect payment. If a company can get workers with unpaid experience to provide further unpaid labor, "entry-level" gets redefined accordingly. And once having unpaid staff becomes normal, funds go elsewhere — either to a company's expansion or to staying afloat. Those jobs that "unfortunately" can't pay probably can; that they don't is indeed unfortunate.

 
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a writer living in Princeton, New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, and The University of Chicago Magazine, among others. She has a doctorate in French and French Studies from New York University.

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