Brendan O’Neill

Why interns don’t deserve pay

The ‘intern justice’ movement is preposterous – and damaging

Why interns don’t deserve pay
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In the modern political firmament, is there any creature more ridiculous than the agitating intern? Interns are rising up. These one-time coffee-makers have reimagined themselves as history-makers, fancying that they are latter-day Wilberforces striking a blow against the ‘internship slave trade’. They’re demanding back pay, retrospective remuneration for all that hard graft in air-conditioned offices with nothing but a usually paid-for Pret sandwich to sustain them.

Groups such as Intern Aware, Internocracy and Interns Anonymous are rebelling against the ‘tyranny’ of unpaid or expenses-only internships. It’s naked exploitation to be asked to work for nowt, they claim. It’s ‘modern-day  slavery’, says the website of Interns Anonymous, driving the point home with a picture of a Roman slave fanning his pampered mistress. That’s just what life is like for the 21st-century intern, apparently, though presumably without the being-sold-at-public-auction bit or the threat of being fed to lions.

The revolting interns have gone running to a well-known facilitator of radical change — Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — in search of justice. And they’ve had some success. Earlier this year, HMRC forced nine firms to hand over £192,808 in back pay to 167 aggrieved interns. Recently Alexander McQueen became the latest company to be chastised for advertising unpaid internships. In America, a class-action lawsuit has been launched against Fox Entertainment Group by youngsters who suffered the horror of interning on trendy movies like Black Swan without pay. Imagine spending your summer hanging out with Natalie Portman and other Hollywood bigwigs. Oh, the humanity!

Of course it’s easy to mock modern youth. And that’s because what they’re doing and saying is preposterous. They present their campaign as a blast against The Man, but the intern uprising is motored more by a nauseating sense of entitlement and capacity for self-pity than by any of the workplace-improving ideals of yesteryear.

It speaks volumes about the parlous state of modern history teaching that these interns so liberally refer to themselves as ‘slaves’. Anyone who had been taught properly about the Roman era, or about black slavery in early America, or about the Holocaust, would know that there’s rather more to being a slave than being asked by a gruff boss to buy him a hazelnut latte.

But there’s a bigger problem with these sad-eyed agitators than self-pity. There’s the negative impact that making all internships paid will have on young people’s battered sense of voluntarism. The demand that internships become paid positions is an extension of modern youth’s corrosive belief that everything they do should be instantly rewarded. This is a generation which thinks its every endeavour deserves a pat on the back. Its less well-off members were even paid for attending school back when the Educational Maintenance Allowance existed. No wonder they think they should be paid for interning. Agitating interns doll up their campaign in lefty lingo, but there’s something ironically Thatcherite in their grasping for instant cash. Terrifyingly, we’ve nurtured youngsters who measure the value of their every action by how speedily they’re rewarded for it. Like performing seals.

The whole point of an internship is that it isn’t a job — it’s an opportunity. So it makes perfect sense that there’s no pay packet at the end of the week. When I was 20 I spent three months working for Living Marxism magazine in exchange for a daily cup of coffee, which I had to make myself. But they worked harder on me than I did for them: they taught me to write, gave me grammar lessons I never got at my comp, helped me think about the world in a fresh way. Interning is always harder work for the people overseeing the interns than it is for the interns themselves.

Easily the most grating argument made by agitating interns is that unpaid internships hit working-class youth the hardest. Apparently these empty-stomached sons of toil can’t afford to work for free, and therefore certain professions where interning is rife — such as journalism — will remain closed to them forever. What patronising nonsense. Is there anything worse than when middle-class campaigners use grubby-kneed poor folk as a Trojan horse for the pursuit of their own self-enriching escapades? Resilient working-class kids have for years topped up their internships with Saturday jobs or evening work, while kipping on a friend’s couch to cut outgoings. And in the process they demonstrated the very thing every intern should ideally possess: self-drive, the opposite of self-pity.

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

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