Death Of The Unpaid Intern

The twenty-somethings of today might most accurately be defined by the disparity between the expectations we were raised with and the reality we are encountering. Most noticeably in the job market which, instead of embracing perhaps the most skilled labor force in American history, took a millennial-sized dump all over our dreams of being able to afford all the things.


So we flocked to free labor and indentured servitude (i.e. unpaid internships) as a way to cope and try to rebuild our hope for the future. However, among the things they don’t tell you is that these positions, while thrilling at times and likely to help in the long run, could just as easily leave you with nothing as they could introduce you to everything.

Now, when a few brave souls dare to stand up and ask the right question (Am I being taken advantage of?) companies like Fox Searchlight fight back with the claim that unless they get their precious unpaid work force, there could be dire consequences for us all.

Review and analysis

Perhaps they are right. With the sheer number of students/recent graduates employed in this manner (more than half according to a study by Intern Bridge), it’s not outrageous to claim our economy which is already strained at best can’t support this sort of equality in pay. Though let’s be honest, “Black Swan” grossed $329,398,046 worldwide; loosen the purse strings Fox. When you make that much money, especially using any amount of free labor, you don’t get to cry about fairness.

The debate surrounding this issue is as complex as any other and the end result could have huge implications on the economy. Businessweek’s Eric Spitznagel sums the issues surrounding “Black Swan’s” unpaid ducklings and cases like it.

“If companies decide that offering unpaid internships leaves them exposed to lawsuits—and paid internships are too expensive—it could be an unfortunate development for college students willing to do free grunt work.”

I doubt the workforce of the “willing” would be so accepting if there were other options waiting for them, however Spitznagel is right. The case of the “Black Swan” has launched us into a game of chicken that could leave our collective goose cooked.


The internship litmus test

Of course not all unpaid internships are illegitimate. The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division has set forth these criteria against which you weigh your internship before getting too litigious.

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1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.
2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern.
3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff.
4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded.
5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship.
6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

However, if you feel as though you are among the marginalized and undervalued among us there are resources available to explore your options.

As someone who has had more than her fair share of intern work (both paid and unpaid) I can say from experience that there is nothing like staring down the barrel of real-life work experience. Especially when some of our top brands and global companies offer a litany of positions that put you just in sight of your dream job with glamour and responsibility to spare. It can be intoxicating. It can also be a drain on your financial and emotional states with a huge expectation of sacrifice on your end, sometimes without ever paying off. I’ve worked long hours for no pay or reward but also been given more than I ever felt I deserved. But perhaps that quality is the one that makes us perfect being the definitive intern generation; the patience to wait until we’re told we deserve what’s coming to us and the expectation that it could take a long time.

What’s been your experience with the world of internships? Worth it? Over it? Share your story below.


View Comment (1)
  • I read a really interesting article about this (on Jezebel?) that basically says unpaid internships are racist/classist. Only a certain kind of student can afford to have unpaid internships (let’s be honest – probably rich white kids), and it restricts low income students from entering certain fields (fashion, media, etc). It definitely doesn’t make sense to me that an internship at an engineering field is paid and one at a magazine is unpaid!

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