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Working for nothing? How the world of internships has changed

Many interns would sooner think of themselves as doing almost anything but work, even as they put in long hours

David Rigby

Published: Updated:

No one would expect someone to go into a factory and work six months for free, yet every summer thousands of interns descend on New York city and many other places to work for nothing. They use empty dorm rooms or friends’ sofas to sleep, burrow unnoticed into illegal sublets and surf couches long-term. At work, they occupy recently-vacated desks and offices. They file papers, get coffee and try to make themselves noticed, but not too much so.

This is not in reference to those who are still in university, but many interns would sooner think of themselves as doing almost anything but work, even as they put in long hours. Even long months working unpaid are described as “an educational experience”, “a networking opportunity”, “a chance to try something new.”

Moreover, this free work is displacing from paid work those whose opportunities are limited and money most needed. In the United States, the middle classes are paying to work in Starbucks for the experience, rather than the needy getting the work. In Britain, the middle and upper classes are capitalizing on who they or their parents know, while the working classes still think they should get there on their own merit.

Neo-liberalism is a term that has been used since the 1970s. Its advocates support extensive economic liberalization policies such as privatization, fiscal austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to enhance the role of the private sector in the economy.

Country examples

Neo-liberalism is famously associated with the economic policies introduced by former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and former US President Ronald Reagan. The implementation of neo-liberal policies and the acceptance of neo-liberal economic theories in the 1970s are seen by some academics as the root of the financial crisis of 2007–08.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Britain enabled those who had missed out on early education, and the working classes, to get education at least to degree level for free. Neo-liberalism has stopped that. Now it costs a fortune to get an education, and education is big business.

Billie Holiday, 1940s jazz singer, wrote and sang: “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose.” How true it was then, and how true it has become now. Internships allow the rich employed to take on the rich unemployed, as they are the only ones who can afford to spend months with no income. The poor (and indebted from paying for their education) unemployed cannot get a foot through the door, even to make coffee at minimum wage.

The first experiment in applied neo-liberal theory began on Sept. 11, 1973, in Chile, when General Augusto Pinochet set about implementing neo-liberal economic reforms and repressing anyone that stood in their way.
In 1994, the African National Congress (ANC), having overthrown apartheid in South Africa, embraced neo-liberal economic theory. As a result, South Africa is an even more unequal society than it was under apartheid. After the fall of communism, the neo-liberal revolution resulted in absurdly wealthy oligarchs and Russia defaulting on its debts in 1998.

After 2002, Argentina defaulted on its debts and prioritized repayment of its International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. The late Argentine President Néstor Kirchner famously said the IMF had “transformed itself from being a lender for development to a creditor demanding privileges.”

In the Euro-zone, Britain had an IMF bailout in 1976, and is aggressively and systematically applying neo-liberalism now and still failing to reduce debt. Spain, Italy and Ireland were forced into austerity by the IMF after the neo-liberalism of housing bubbles and trying to stay in the Euro. Greece is a great example of where economic interests are separated from democratic control.

Where does this leave the intern? The film ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ shows brilliantly how interns and juniors are scared to death to do anything wrong, and asked to do the impossible by the all-powerful boss brilliantly acted by Meryl Steep. With so many fighting for the pleasure of working for nothing, the bullies take advantage, and casualties - such as the guy who had so much work he slept under his desk, and others who died - are hardly surprising.

As a consequence of neo-liberalism, the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and with regard to internships, equal opportunities are available for those who can afford them.