Feature

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

Perlin dissects corporate America's increasing reliance on unpaid and low-paid interns and shows why the system is unjust.

(Verso, $23)

Very few of us need to be told that there’s something unjust about American employers’ increasing reliance on unpaid and low-paid interns, said Katy Waldman in The Washington Post. The “expected arguments” are handled with wit and force in Ross Perlin’s new study of the issue: He shows why most unpaid internships are actually illegal. He points out the moral bankruptcy of any employers who reap benefits from free labor. And he highlights how the system has become a barrier to certain white-collar opportunities for anyone who can’t afford to forgo decent wages. But Perlin’s effort also proves that we’ve needed to have these issues put forward in a coherent way. “The evenhandedness of Intern Nation makes its diagnoses of injustice all the more chilling.”

Some big companies look bad even despite Perlin’s good manners, said Roger D. Hodge in Bookforum.com. With up to 8,000 interns working each year at its theme parks, Disney essentially operates “one of the world’s largest internship mills.” Wages are minimal, rights negligible, and, in exchange, these interns earn the privilege of flipping burgers or cleaning toilets. Perlin points out that 75 percent of college students now work in at least one internship before graduating; of those interns who work for nothing, 75 percent are women. A reader would like to think that Washington might recognize that these labor-force trends are “creating a toxic race to the bottom.” But you can’t expect action from a city that depends on the arrival each year of about 20,000 interns “to perform clerical duties, draft legislation, and sexually gratify” their patrons.

Perlin might be a bit too bothered by interns’ forced subservience, said Molly Fischer in The New Republic. While his general call for reform is “entirely appropriate,” he neglects to consider perhaps the most valuable lessons that an internship can teach. “Discovering that work can be bleak is a crucial step” toward becoming a productive adult. Learning that no one is going to tell you how to make yourself useful might be more important still.

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