Are they a foot in the door to a fulfilling career? Or a lack in the gut for a student struggling to figure out what she wants from a job—and what she can afford en route to graduation? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Either way, it’s clear that the issue of paid versus unpaid internships has caught the attention of people outside the usual bounds of students, career counselors and human resource departments.
This past spring, Anya Kamenetz, author of Generation Debt: Why Now is a Terrible Time to Be Young (reviewed in Lilith, Summer 2006), wrote a New York Times op-ed piece—titled “Take This Internship and Shove It”—in which she argued that unpaid internships are actually detrimental: they foster an unhealthy “performative passion”—the idea that anyone who’s willing to work for free must love her work passionately (which she links to low rates of unionization among young workers), they can further muddle lines of obligation and responsibility vs. reward and they mess with what Kamenetz calls the meritocracy of capitalism. Furthermore, there’s a clear class bias: only those who can afford to work without pay have access to whatever advantages these internships might provide.
Reader response to Kamenetz was fast and forceful. A professor wrote in to say that internships should function as classes, not real jobs. Some letter writers worried about the legality of “work” that does not meet minimum wage requirements. And many students and former students wrote in to say that unpaid internships often compensate for their lack of payment by opening doors to greater opportunity than would, say, a summer burger-flipping stint.
Certainly, the young women who have emerged from Lilith’s own internship program can attest to that. Providing a small stipend—and the luxury of part-time hours to allow students to hold other jobs—reflects on Jewish and feminist ethics, and the successes of the magazine’s 120-plus former interns speak to a working system. Lilith’s overstuffed folder of intern responses and evaluations is filled with two common sentiments: the first, an appreciation of the community of the office (“You all do the work I do,” marvelled Sadye Vassil, noting that even though she did a lot of photocopying, so did everyone else). The second common theme is a sense of wonder at how consciously Lilith interns are valued, Susannah Jaffe says it all: “To this day, it boggles my mind that we were taken seriously at the age of 19.”
So while an op-ed piece in the Times is certain to catapult any issue into its 15 minutes of fame, the question of whether unpaid internships are smart, ethical or even legal isn’t new—and it isn’t going anywhere, certainly not with competition for jobs as fierce as ever for recent graduates, who in some schools must complete an internship just to obtain their degrees. Kamenetz raises excellent points about the effect internships can have not just on individuals but on the economy at large, but the decisions that lead students to yea-or-nay a specific opportunity are private ones. Perhaps the issue is best captured by the Times’ quirky accompanying graphic: Job + No Money = Unpaid + Internship—with a whole lot of confusion in between.