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Any other business

Unpaid internships turned me into a banker – but I still think they’re a good thing

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

24 August 2013

9:00 AM

My thanks to ‘AndyB’, the only reader who posted an online comment on my column last week. It was ‘Don’t you ever go on holiday?’ and the answer is yes I do, and here I am deep in the Dordogne, glass of rosé to hand, lunch on the terrace in prospect, scanning cyberspace for some fizzing ingredients to make an Any Other Business cocktail. Upbeat economic news from home, led by ‘CBI lifts growth forecast amid optimism’, merely adds to the mellowness of mood. As for local issues to raise the pulse, there isn’t even a decent ruckus to be had over shale gas, since François Hollande has barred all exploration of it beneath French soil. ‘Non au Gaz de Schiste’ declare some rather redundant banners, on which I’m tempted to spray ‘Vas te faire fracker, Monsieur le President’ in the hope of getting myself arrested so I could write about French police brutality.

But instead let me turn to the topic that has had so many Spectator readers in a froth this week: the merits or iniquities of unpaid internships. Brendan O’Neill’s essay describing interns who agitate to be paid as ‘nauseating’ in their sense of entitlement attracted no less than 114 online comments, many of them very cross indeed. That certainly puts my lonesome message from AndyB in the shade, and tells me I’d better jump on this bandwagon before our younger readership assumes I’m permanently out to lunch on the terrace. So, kids, here’s a horror story to cap any of yours: unpaid internships turned me into a banker.

Casino banking

It’s true. When I went from school in December 1972 for an interview to get into Oxford and was asked my ambition, I answered ‘to write for The Spectator’. But my banker father thought I’d better brace up, and fixed me an unwaged gap-year internship in a Barclays branch at Biarritz, the grand old resort on the French Atlantic coast. It was a stylish induction — on the Avenue Edouard VII, next to the Windsor tea-room, behind the Casino Municipal — but it was also an early lesson in the greed and fear that rule the money world. My duties included arranging remittances from home for British customers who blew all their holiday money at roulette, sometimes returning repeatedly after being drawn back to the tables. I also helped count, and exchange for gold bars, bundles of Spanish pesetas brought over the border illicitly in shopping bags by wealthy Spaniards who were petrified that socialist revolution would follow the death of the ailing General Franco.

All very interesting for an 18-year-old, but still I thought I wanted to be a journalist — and my father clearly thought I needed a second dose of sense. So two summers later I found myself in a posh City merchant bank called J. Henry Schroder Wagg. The work consisted of processing bills of exchange issued by companies to finance their trade, ‘accepted’ by the bank and sold to discount houses in a daily routine unaltered since the 19th century. It was duller than Biarritz, but boredom was relieved by a clerk called Piers Pottinger — later one of London’s most successful PR men, now based in Singapore — who spent his afternoons constructing elaborate practical jokes and making prank phone calls, on one occasion to the office of Mrs Betty Ford at the White House. Was this really the life for me? I wasn’t sure — until my last day when I was summoned to see the chairman, the supremely urbane 8th Earl of Airlie, who said ‘Do come back and see us next time you’re in the City’ as though I had just popped in for a post-lunch snifter.

An offer of a graduate traineeship followed (at £54 a week, since you ask), and that’s how I was trapped for 15 years in the great fortress of finance before I tunnelled my way out and turned into a writer. But here’s the moral of the story: life is rarely a straight line. For the young, as I wrote recently, life is about chances and choices, not entitlements — about snakes and ladders and unmarked doors through which a path will eventually make itself plain. So grab every experience you can, paid or unpaid, home or abroad. Accept the risk of tedium, discomfort and shortage of pocket money. Yes, you were unlucky if you left school or graduated in the midst of a financial disaster wrought by your parents, but your choices will fructify as recovery advances. So stop whingeing and get on with making your own luck.

Desk blockers

As for parents and godparents, should they feel guilty about deploying whatever clout they have to secure internships for their own young? I suggest not, so long as ‘their own’ covers an extended circle. Broke: Who Killed the Middle Class? by David Boyle catalogues the destruction of most of the privileges (decent pensions, for instance) that used to accrue to a slice of society who are ‘honest, civilised, cultured, tolerant’ and vital to the economy. But one thing the squeezed middle still has is an accumulated currency of useful connections and favours owed: so spend it generously, to help every bright youngster you know besides your own flesh and blood.

And one last sideways thought on this topic. A reason why many professional firms and smaller businesses are reluctant to offer places for young people, paid or unpaid, is that they are full up with older people they can no longer get rid of. When compulsory retirement at 65 was abolished two years ago — partly as a response to the destruction of occupational pensions — warnings about the impact on jobs at the far end of the age spectrum were swept aside. A survey by Baring Asset Management this week reveals that one person in seven now has no plans to retire at all.

One chief executive recently painted a picture to me of an office full of elderly desk-blockers incapable of mastering new technology, above a Starbucks full of jobless graduates playing with their smartphones. Older readers who recognise themselves in that might consider, in the interest of the fashionable concept of ‘inter-generational equity’, job-sharing with a grandchild.

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