Serfs Up! Unpaid Interns and the Culture of Dependence

I’m posting the column that was scheduled to run in this week’s Harvard Independent… until the issue was canceled. This is an elaboration of my views on the unpaid internship debate, which has been a hot topic on the HPRgument lately. See Max’s initial post and my response.
Serfs Up! – Unpaid Interns and the Culture of Dependence
The Obama administration has resolved to crack down on for-profit employers who take advantage of their interns, neither paying them nor offering relevant training and experience. Arguments in favor of this decision abound. Of course employers should pay for work from which they gain—otherwise we’ll enable their inefficiency. And everyone will benefit when employers try to get their money’s worth by training interns to contribute in substantive ways. Finally, the prevalence of unpaid internships hurts students who can’t afford to take

them, and who therefore have a narrower range of possible experiences than their wealthier friends.
But my preferred argument against unpaid internships is this: when you’re getting up to 20, 22, even 25-years-old, like one unpaid colleague of mine last summer, it’s time to cut the cord already. At some point, rich kids need to stop relying on their parents to bail them out—to stop capitalizing on the fact that, in Mommy and Daddy’s minds, they’re too big to fail.
Ironically, this culture of dependence can be traced to the same sources as the better-known culture of greed. Among a certain segment of the economic and educational elite, a generation of high-achievers has been raised on inflated conceptions of their own brilliance and importance—lavished with SAT tutors, private college counselors, personal trainers, and prescription-happy psychologists. Even those who have been deprived of such luxuries know what I’m talking about: the overwhelming expectations of families, friends, and teachers; the drive for “success” without taking care to define the term; the sense that we’re going to do something great—down the line, eventually, not soon enough.
It’s obvious how all these things conspire to lead us into temptation, attracting us to careers in which “success,” if defined economically at least, can be most immediate. Less obvious, perhaps, is how these same cultural factors—the self-importance, the dreams of a golden future—can serve to justify not making any money at all. From the student’s perspective, present-day dependence can be excused by the anticipation of future fortunes—after I go to law school, after my talent is recognized, after my work is published, after my big break. From the parent’s perspective, paying for rent in Williamsburg seems a rather modest cost compared to four years (or perhaps 20?) of private-school tuition. Why stop the gravy train now, when Junior is so close to breaking through?
The idea that Junior ought to live within his means, earn his keep, and learn how to manage a budget is a foreign one. To force a decline in the comfort and style to which he has grown accustomed is thought unconscionable. Last month, The Crimson’s James McAuley lent his support to profligacy among Harvard’s economic elite, praising it in the name of “honesty.” “Our wealthier peers,” he wrote, “should have no qualms about exercising the spending habits with which they were raised and that many of them will resume practicing immediately upon kissing Fair Harvard goodbye.” McAuley wants to liberate those who, out of respect and decency, have refrained from flaunting their wealth in the face of their classmates. As one letter-writer alleged, McAuley assumes that all rich people secretly want to “rent stretch-Hummers and spray Dom and Henny on us poor plebs.” And he wants them to feel good about doing it.
But if you’ve got it, does it really follow that you should flaunt it? College students of an earlier generation didn’t seem to think so. Roughing it used to be a source of pride. It was once kind of cool to live in unglamorous neighborhoods, gather in cramped flats, search for deals on microwavable mac-and-cheese, and frequent dollar draft nights at local dive bars. For spring break, our parents went on road trips in old junkers. Their kids jet off to Mexico or the Caribbean.
McAuley praises honesty, yet it’s anything but honest to spend someone else’s money as if you earned it. College graduates should make their own way in life, relying on their talents and energies to attain the living standards they desire. And college students should prepare for this struggle by earning money in the summertime. To do otherwise is to perpetuate class privilege, and a lazy sort of privilege at that. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, but we shouldn’t just get a piggyback ride.
Photo credit: Institute of Politics

Leave a Comment

Solve : *
30 ⁄ 5 =