The intern is everywhere, slowly but surely, infiltrating every office on the planet. But while the internship is now ubiquitous, having become the standard first rung on most career ladders and the most frequent stepping stone between education and a career, it remains a largely unexamined and unregulated sector. Somewhere between an apprenticeship and a temp job, the internship resists easy definition and is understood more in terms of social cachet than actual responsibilities. Having had his fair share of directionless and underpaid internships between various degrees at Stanford and Cambridge, Ross Perlin, a researcher in linguistics, decided that the phenomenon deserved closer scrutiny. The result is Intern Nation, an exposé of the murky world of the internship.
When the debate over internships flared up earlier this year the focus was on their role in exacerbating social inequality. As Perlin put it in an article at the time, ‘internships are the face of privilege, restricting opportunities to those able to work for nothing or for a pittance’. The ‘cash for internships’ scandal (when it emerged that internships at City firms were being auctioned off at a Conservative Party fundraising event) was, according to Perlin, indicative of a structural inequality at the heart of the internship system. While Perlin does dedicate a chapter of the book to examining inequality (arguing that the more ‘glamorous’ sectors of film, television and journalism are actually more guilty in this regard than City firms), Intern Nation takes a broader approach to the subject.
One of Perlin’s main arguments is that the internship phenomenon has become a vehicle for an increasing interpenetration between the worlds of work and education. This is particularly pronounced in the US, where universities often run internship programmes hand-in-hand with businesses in which students can work for firms in return for academic credit.