Just a few decades ago, it was virtually unknown for young people, or anyone else for that matter, to perform meaningful work for nothing. It was one thing to babysit for a relative or make dinner for a friend without seeking monetary reward - such "gift economies" are natural and commonplace the world over - but almost no one toiled in offices day in and day out without wages, waiving their right to be paid in return for a glimpse of a career, for references, contacts or a line item on their CV.
Enter the intern. Towards the end of the 19th century, the American medical profession borrowed the term from French (originally interne) to signify a new, intermediate role expected of young doctors between medical school and full entry into the profession. Starting in the 1930s, a few large corporations and government offices tentatively began to create their own internship programmes. Their principal aim was to ensure a steady supply of talent into their professions, bridging the gap between school and the workplace. An added impetus came in the 1960s and 1970s, when the social and political ferment on university campuses prompted students and faculty alike to demand more "learning beyond the classroom". For educational as much as pragmatic reasons, several universities and academic disciplines began to incorporate internships into their curricula.
Yet the real internship explosion is much newer. As recently as the early 1980s, according to the National Society of Experiential Education, the percentage of college students in the US completing an internship before graduation stood at less than 3 per cent. Today the figure may be as high as 75 per cent. As many as two million internships take place in the US each year, by a conservative estimate, with anywhere from one third to a half of them unpaid, often in violation of employment law. There are several million internships each year outside the US as well, with a similarly high proportion of them unpaid, if recent statistics for the UK (37 per cent) and Germany (51 per cent) are any indication.
Once upon a time, aside from the major unpaid labour hub of Washington DC, internships were primarily paid experiences at blue-chip firms, centred on training and recruitment. The range of industries involved was relatively limited, and the practice confined primarily to the US, although the British concept of "work experience" was roughly parallel. Proponents of internships could reasonably claim that they represented a white- collar adaptation of the traditional skills-based apprenticeships that have existed for centuries in Europe, the US and elsewhere.
Yet today internships have become the principal gateway to the white-collar arena in large parts of the world, granting or restricting access to many of the best-paid and most influential careers. They represent a new way to work at organisations of all shapes and sizes (for-profit, non-profit, public sector), as well as a novel approach to selecting and training the next generation of workers (or at least initiating them into an industry or company). Located at the nexus of higher education, labour markets and the white-collar world, internships provide a window on to transformations in all three areas. More than just standard operating procedure and part of how the world works, internships are a culturally significant practice, changing mentalities about work, youth and the nature of education. Just as significantly, they are becoming an increasingly important mechanism of self-perpetuation for elites in the US and beyond.
But what is an intern anyway? The stereotype is still a hapless young peon, in or just out of college, trying to gain experience and enter the workforce. Yet the word now covers white-collar hopefuls of almost any age who can be hired for cheap or better still for nothing, from high school kids to those changing careers at age 30 or 40. With little reliable research on the topic, no standard practices and no widely accepted definition of the word, "intern" is now a meaningless catch-all for everything from burger-flipping at Disney World (a programme that hires more than 7,000 interns each year) to tweeting for Charlie Sheen (an opportunity that 82,000 applicants sought).
"You can get more out of the person because they're your intern," a candidate for the US Congress told me, explaining his understanding of the internship culture. "What I did in my campaign is I advertised a bunch of internship positions like: 'You can be the New Media intern, you can be Communications intern'." Other employers described their use of the word as a targeted signal, deployed to attract young people with (nebulous) prospects of career advancement, when what the firm actually wanted was free, temporary help around the office, snapped up quickly and informally.
Curiously, the idea of the intern includes both exploitation and privilege, low-man-on-the-totem-pole status and also the sense of someone on their way up. Indeed, certain turns of phrase crop up in the internship discourse again and again: "a foot in the door" for young people and a way of "paying your dues", internships are also "a great way to get experience", "build your résumé", and "make contacts". A "win-win" for employers and "go-getter" interns alike, where "you get out what you put in" or "find out what you don't want to do". One serial intern defined it as "a thing you did to make yourself look good", nothing more and nothing less - a box to be checked, a hoop to be jumped through, a rite of passage.
Monica Lewinsky remains the world's most famous intern - the only person who will always be an intern, unable to get beyond that most transient of all work identities, that minor purgatory where even serial interns usually only linger for a few years. The Lewinsky scandal not only symbolised the creepy sexual and power dynamics inherent in many of these situations, it also reflected many dynamics of a prototypical internship. Although they cycle through endlessly, thousands of interns perform vital, unpaid work at the heart of the US federal government and she was just one of them.
Despite a supposedly meritocratic process by which an estimated 6,000 applicants apply for a few hundred spots, the unpaid White House internship programme still turns on connections, like so many internships. Two family friends with close ties to the Clinton administration put in a good word on Lewinsky's behalf, enabling her to land consecutive internships in the Oval Office. According to Lewinsky's biographer, Andrew Morton, Lewinsky was able to live free of charge at her mother's apartment in the Watergate building, a crucial advantage reflecting a privileged background. The circumstances against which the scandal itself unfolded are particularly telling: during the federal government shutdown of 1995, when regular White House employees had to go home, interns, including Lewinsky, served essentially as a substitute labour force, a skeleton crew plugging operational holes to keep the government running. According to Morton, this helps to explain how the president and an intern came into such close proximity.
The ensuing scandal changed nothing about the status of interns, aside from highlighting the curious mix of stigma and glamour. Americans have become inured to periodic improprieties involving important men and their interns, but have done little to close a loophole that leaves interns effectively unprotected against sexual harassment and other forms of workforce discrimination.
In the meantime, interns have become a staple of popular culture, which sometimes seems to know the culture of working for nothing better than any policymakers or academic researchers. Few portrayals of office culture are now complete without some reference to interns. In Wes Anderson's satirical film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, a maniacal oceanographer employs a team of perfect minions on board his massive boat: the "Team Zissou interns" are clad in embarrassing, anonymous uniforms, share a single pistol as they face life-threatening dangers, and are ordered to steal, hustle and pour drinks.
When one of the interns tries to quit, Captain Zissou threatens him with the loss of his academic credit.
On an episode of the classic sitcom Seinfeld, Kramer employs Darren, an eager intern from NYU, to work for "Kramerica", a dubious start-up scheme he's running out of his apartment. In a pitch-perfect send-up of absurd home-office internships, Darren is sent in hot pursuit of a missing chicken.
The Colbert Report has featured the show's interns toiling as stone masons on a mausoleum for the host, leading Colbert to joke that "unpaid interns built this county, and in exchange I assume they got college credit". (He also adds that the interns will be buried with him in case he needs any help in the afterlife.) Intern characters have become regular features on the late-night shows of David Letterman and Jay Leno, where they serve as easy, inoffensive dupes, figures of fun, casual laughingstocks. The Onion, a satirical newspaper, arguably provides some of the most revealing "coverage" about internships: Obama doing a "presidential internship" in Spain and headlines like "Summer Intern Already Forgotten" and "Fall Internship Pays Off With Coveted Winter Internship".
In movies and television shows aimed at a younger audience, interns appear under a halo of glamour, proxies for viewers who themselves would give anything to shuttle coffee or make copies for famous actors, fashion models or pop singers. On The Hills, fashion world pseudo-interns Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port have become icons of intern cool for the teenybopper set, appearing to demonstrate that the right unpaid gig can catapult you to fame and fortune. Celebrities who turn to internships - Kanye West as a fashion intern for The Gap, Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Stewart Bradley at Elle, Lady Gaga seeking internhood with a famous hat designer - heighten the title's artificial allure, but hardly resemble the real thing. Undoubtedly one reason for all the attention is that glamour industries like film, fashion and music, where these pop culture images are forged, are themselves rotten with interns - they portray what they know all too well.
Every summer in New York, Los Angeles, London, and other intern capitals (not to mention the massive housing complexes of Disney World's internship programme), a whole society of wageless young people comes into being, an extension of campus life into cities and offices.
Some 20,000 interns, if not more, mob DC each year between June and August, taking over the college housing at Georgetown and George Washington University, proudly sporting their intern badges wherever they go. If the apprentices of early modern Europe were known for being a rebellious or mischievous lot, an unruly little society unto themselves, interns mask discontent with expected obsequious cheer, confident that their unpaid summers will pay off in the end.
Although interns stand out, they have counterparts among the temps, part-timers, freelancers, "permalancers", "permatemps", externs, independent contractors, and so on who increasingly populate the offices of corporate America. Interns are typecast as the guileless and perky ones, supposedly on their way up, while the temps are seen as grizzled and alienated, the freelancers beleaguered but proud. This explosion of precarious and "contingent" roles is also largely a phenomenon of the last several decades, overthrowing the older notion of "standard employment": full-time employees enjoying relative job stability over a lifetime, often at a single employer or in a single field.
Under the broadest definition of "contingency", including those who are self-employed, a Government Accountability Office report in 2000 found that nearly 30 per cent of the US workforce, comprising almost 40 million individuals, now works with little to no stability, more or less from gig to gig. Young workers are particularly likely to fall into this category, and youth unemployment hovers near an all-time high of 20 per cent, exceeding the joblessness rate for any other group.
The cultural effects of all this instability and contingency in the workforce are even more profound than the straight economics. Viewed positively, these developments have fostered entrepreneurship, independence and flexibility, the rise of a "free agent nation" and a wider range of ways to work, suited to diverse lifestyles. Negatively, the prospect of a middle-class life has receded further into the distance. We increasingly "bowl alone", in the famous phrase of Robert Putnam. Many young people feel forced to delay or permanently jettison the traditional milestones of adulthood. Using five markers traditionally associated with adulthood - leaving home, finishing school, becoming financially independent, getting married and having a child - researchers have found that only 46 per cent of women and 31 per cent of men had become "adults" by age 30 in 2000, compared with 77 per cent of women and 65 per cent of men of the same age in 1960. Twenty per cent of 26-year-olds live at home in the US, double the figure for 1970, to take just one of these indicators. Full-time, standard employment, formerly the bedrock of social stability in the developed world, is in free fall, and no one knows what the ultimate effects will be.
The word free is powerful. Products and services on offer for nothing can go viral, theoretically reaching almost anyone, breaking down barriers, encouraging rapid uptake and universal attention, circumventing bureaucracy, infrastructure and other limitations associated with payment. At least part of the reason why internships have spread like wildfire is that they seem so easy: once young people are persuaded to offer up their labour for nothing, what do companies have to lose? Everyone under 30 years old, according to Chris Anderson's recent manifesto Free: The Future of a Radical Price, is part of "Generation Free", weaned on a digital revolution where everything is expected to eventually cost nothing at all. This generation expects a great deal, but is perhaps willing to do even more, for the magical price of zero.
If Anderson's injunctions to embrace a new economy of free ring hollow (even he admits that someone still pays in the end, that "hidden" costs are everywhere), he has still identified a broader generational mindset. The same students who felt entitled to free MP3s and free internet services like Google and Facebook have morphed into the young workers who offer their labour for free. A small survey conducted last year in the UK found that 86 per cent of recent and soon-to-be graduates were willing to work for free, despite considering it exploitative.
For any individual, this is mostly sheer pragmatism. The challenge of moving from unpaid intern to paid employee parallels the struggle of companies that try to start charging for a product or service they formerly gave away. Once you're seen as the intern, it can be hard to "cross over". From my research, I concluded that US companies save $7.35 billion each year by employing unpaid or underpaid interns instead of regular employees. Similarly, a recent survey in the UK found that 20 per cent of British firms have been relying on unpaid labour to "get work done more cheaply" and keep profits up during the recession. The hiring of full-time employees may keep receding further and further into the distance.
Yet the power of free is counterbalanced by a host of negative psychological baggage. Among those who work for nothing, "voluntarist" eagerness is usually short-lived, according to psychologists, who have observed the consistent devaluing of that which is freely offered, including labour. "I almost felt like we used them up and spit them out ... in the beginning they'd be really enthusiastic," one boss told me of her two unpaid blogging interns. "Then after a while they'd get to a point where they were like, 'Well, I don't really have to write this post. I'm not getting paid for it, who cares?' By the same token, I couldn't really force them to do anything."
The new rhetoric around free, like all the breathless invocations of entrepreneurship, risk-taking and personal branding, has spurred the internship boom and overturned received notions about work and reward. The cost of labour, which used to fall on the firms that benefited from it, is pushed onto interns and their families, who burn through their savings or extend their loans. The imperative to have "relevant" work experience, now usually in internship form, belittles the value of the kind of "casual" jobs that once underpinned the experience of being young.
If the culture of interning changes those within its reach, it leaves another group dangerously exposed, with profound social consequences. What happens to those who don't intern, those who can't afford the ever-increasing costs associated with entering the white-collar world? They are young people from lower-income backgrounds, without connections in the relevant professions, without a university degree. Performing months or even years of unpaid work is impossible for the majority of young people. And with unpaid work now a serious barrier to entry - a vital prerequisite to becoming a journalist, a politician, a film producer and so on - most of those outside the internship circle will remain trapped in dead-end, low-wage jobs, the bottom half of an increasingly polarised economy.
More than salary is at stake here. The complexion of entire professions, including the most influential in society, is now being transformed. What can we expect as former interns rise to the top of their fields in coming years? Will upper-middle-class journalists write about poverty they haven't experienced and rarely see? Will filmmakers convincingly tell the stories of people very different from themselves? Will they even think to? Can politicians from elite backgrounds effectively legislate for all?
The massive push for equality of opportunity seems almost spent, choked off by the costs of higher education and internships, the chosen means for perpetuating an elite. At least where university is concerned, an effort to level the playing field has long been under way, with financial aid sometimes helping to bridge the divide. Not so for the internship free-for-all. When the professional world becomes pay-to-play, as one intern told me, "it narrows the voices of who we hear".
Ross Perlin's book Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy is published by Verso.