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Hey, Interns: Take Back Your Summers and Dump Your Internship

Go out into the world and have an awesome, honest-to-goodness, old school summer.

In our weekly Hustlin' series, we go beyond the pitying articles about recession-era youth and illuminate ways our generation is coping. The last few years may have been a rude awakening, but we're surviving. Here's how.

Step away from the desk. That’s right, you heard me. Ditch the coffee. Forget about the paper jam. Quit the spreadsheet and forget you ever saw all those hideous rows and garbled columns. When you tell your boss, be polite but firm. Remember, they’re not paying you. There’s no health insurance. They may not even remember your name. The chances of getting a real job out of them—let’s face it—are slim to none. You can do it: Dump the internship.

I know how hard you fought to land it in the first place, so I’m not taking this lightly. Working for free, after all, means paying to work, because rent, food, transportation, and the rest aren’t suddenly free as soon as you flash your intern badge. Maybe you’re even getting and paying for academic credit (good luck jumping through all those bureaucratic hoops). Maybe you’ve raised money from your whole extended family, you’re tending bar till midnight, you doubled down on your student debt—all so that you could do this internship. You’ve been talking about this for months, everyone nods sagely and thinks it’s a very “go-getter” and “relevant” thing to do; come to think of it, you’ve already put it on your CV. It sounds better and better the more you talk about it— especially if you don’t mention the unpaid part, or the random administrative work, or even the word “internship.”

Still, I repeat: Dump the internship. Go out into the world and have an awesome, honest-to-goodness, old school summer.

My advice comes just when the idea that young people should have to work unpaid is finally coming under fire. A few decades ago, almost no one did internships, and certainly not unpaid ones—just ask your parents. No, ask your grandparents: If you tell them you’re interning, they’ll probably ask if you’re going to medical school. The spread of the unpaid internship is a recent phenomenon, born largely out of companies, non-profits, and even government offices wanting to save on labor costs. In my book Intern Nation, I estimate that American companies save $2 billion every year from interns working for free. Good intentions about educating, training, mentoring, and recruiting interns are largely getting lost in the shuffle, except at the really high-quality internships—and those are usually the precious few that pay you.

The recession has seriously exacerbated matters, but it goes beyond a tough economy. Many of us now have little choice but to intern after graduating from college, while we’re in graduate school, well into our 20s, or even mid-career. “Serial interns” are on the rise. Internships are killing, rather than creating, entry-level jobs; it’s not a coincidence that youth unemployment is at record levels as more of us intern. And what about people who can’t afford to pay in order to work? In some ways, the biggest danger of the internship system is its tendency to reinforce privilege.

The internship system only adds to our country’s insane intergenerational inequity. According to the Census Bureau, 37 percent of American households headed by someone under 35 now have a net worth of zero or less; and households headed by a person over 65 have a net worth 47 times greater than younger households. Some age-based inequality is natural, but this is off-the-charts, record-breaking territory. In a survey of 20,000 students, the National Association of Colleges and Employers—not a particularly rabble-rousing organization—found that half of the students’ internships had been unpaid, and that unpaid interns experienced no advantage in the job market, no higher starting salary as a result of all their free labor. Even The New York Times is saying internships are overrated—in a column on parenting last week, Dan Fleshler praised his daughter’s “act of quiet rebellion” in choosing to be a camp counselor instead of an intern.

Even more important, interns are taking action. In the past year alone, four unpaid interns have joined different class action lawsuits against superloaded employers that refused to pay for real work. Two of the interns were on the crew of the movie Black Swan, which earned hundreds of millions at the box office, and another one of the interns was responsible for managing other unpaid interns at Harper’s Bazaar. Last year, the Department of Labor started hearing more complaints directly from interns. Within Occupy Wall Street, a group has formed specifically to stand up for interns’ rights. More college newspapers than I can count have editorialized thoughtfully about the devaluing of young people’s labor. Some employers, like the Atlantic Media Company and Conde Nast, are already working to overhaul their internships programs in response.

So what should you do if you actually ditch your internship? The same kind of things people did before all this madness began. There’s good reason why traditional summer jobs like lifeguarding, scooping ice cream, and being a camp counselor have a nice, nostalgic sound to them—they have real value. All kinds of businesses, from theme parks to rental car companies to restaurants to fish canneries, are at their busiest during the summer and need extra help.

You might be surprised by how much you can learn from these “menial” jobs: being outside (in many cases), having real responsibilities squarely on your shoulders, working with cool people from all sorts of different backgrounds, and not least, earning money and (hopefully) being financially independent. If potential employers in your future don’t see the value in that—and a lot of them will—they might not be people you want to work for, anyway. There’s no question there are industries that basically require internships these days: media, politics, film, and fashion, to name just a few. And short of a full-scale boycott of unpaid internships, you may feel that the pragmatic thing is simply to suck it up—but doesn’t that just reflect how deep the problem goes?

In the end, it’s not just about switching from an unpaid internship to paid, “regular” work. There’s a reason students get summer vacation, and it’s not just to give our long-suffering teachers a break. Progressive parents and educators at the end of the 19th century—the same people who helped end exploitative child labor, at least in the U.S. and Western Europe—understood that young people need an escape valve, serious time off, extended experience of the outdoors, space for self-determination, adventure, and fun. So sure, get an old-fashioned summer job—or take a roadtrip, study a language, learn a new skill, go on a long hike and contemplate the meaning of life. Spend time with friends and family. Work on a project you keep putting off. Maybe even fall in love—but don’t put that on your résumé.

Image via (cc) Flickr user Richard Masoner

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