The Death of the Unpaid Internship Is Good for Everyone


The instinctive reaction to Condé Nast’s decision to completely discontinue its internship program rather than deigning to pay its interns minimum wage has generally been along the lines of, “Screw you, you cheap bastards.” This isn’t entirely unfair, obviously — the fact that one of America’s biggest publishing companies can’t put its hand in its pocket to pay its entry-level staff isn’t exactly a great reflection on the company or its management. But if others follow suit, the whole sorry business might have at least one unexpected benefit: hastening the end of the unpaid internship system as a whole.

I’ve never been an unpaid intern — the early stages of my “career,” such as it is, largely predated the arrival on Australian shores of the genius idea of not paying entry-level staff. Similarly, I’ve pretty much never written for free — I put work into articles, so why the fuck should I do it for “exposure”? But sadly, stamping your foot in this manner isn’t really an option for most young writers today; there’s a pervasive expectation that you “pay your dues” by working for free in the hope that someday someone might deign to actually pay you for your trouble.

The unpaid internship is one of those ideas about labor that seem to have wormed their way into the American psyche, like the belief that it’s somehow OK for restauranteurs and bar owners not to pay their staff on the understanding that customers will kindly do so for them. But that entrenchment doesn’t mean it isn’t a whole truckload of horseshit. Even if they’re learning something while they’re doing it, interns are providing their labor, and deserve to be remunerated accordingly, at minimum wage if nothing more. (So do the people waiting your tables for tips, but that’s a subject for another article.)

At least the local café or bar is probably working on pretty low profit margins. You can’t say the same about the big corporations and individual rich people that have been happily refusing to pay interns over the last decade or so. (Hey, Sheryl Sandberg!) It’s all very well to bleat about how you found great talent among the ranks of people who you decided not to pay, but you can also find “great talent” the old-fashioned way: by advertising a job, interviewing applicants, and hiring the best person.

This is what media outlets used to do before the explosion of unpaid internships, so complaining that the end of unpaid internships will limit companies’ ability to identify new talent is disingenuous and self-serving. Internships have always existed, of course, but the cynical way in which the lines have been blurred between what used to be intern positions and what used to be genuine entry-level positions is a fairly recent development. It’s unsurprising that people are sick of it. It’s about time.

And the thing is, it’s not like refusing to pay your interns even works particularly well for companies. Obviously, you can see the immediate appeal: free staff! The bean counters will love it! But really, it’s only beneficial in the short term and, I’d argue, ultimately to the detriment of the industry as a whole. If you’re a media company offering internships, you’re not doing so out of the goodness of your heart; you’re allowing interns into your office with the expectation that having them around might be in some way helpful to you and your staff.

(Of course, if you are a terrible human being, you might just see your interns as unpaid labor to be put to use filing and purchasing coffee, and eventually shuffled out the door to make way for another crop of wide-eyed kids, ripe for the same cycle of exploitation. But if you do this, you will end up with a bunch of sullen, disillusioned kids who are more hindrance than help to you. And word will get around. And you will also go to hell, so there’s that.)

Otherwise, assuming that you’re not just treating interns as glorified slave labor, the whole point of “hiring” them is that you might find potential employees among them. If you’re actually paying those people, and having them do real work, you’re going to be more discerning about who you choose for such positions in the first place. There’s an argument to be made that this is ultimately beneficial to the company; there are less hours lost training transient staff who have no intention of (or opportunity for) staying with your company, less time spent wading through resumés, less dicking around in general. And, if your staff are getting paid a wage, they’re more motivated to actually work — if you get fired from an unpaid internship, after all, all that’s hurt is your pride and perhaps your reputation.

On a semi-related note, there’s also the fact that unpaid internships aren’t really of social benefit, either. Replacing entry-level positions obviously means fewer jobs, less income, and less spending, thus undermining our economy at a time when it’s already in a pretty dire state. It also works as a way of entrenching privilege: only people with cashed-up parents can afford to work for free, let alone while living in a city as calamitously expensive as New York. Again, this isn’t good for anyone. Obviously, it’s not good for the poor kids who can’t afford to compete, but it’s also not good for companies, who miss out on a potential talent pool: those prospective employees who might be great but simply can’t afford to give up their time for no remuneration.

Clearly, internships can be of benefit to both parties. If you’re just starting out, you may not necessarily want to accept the first job that comes your way, and the chance to try your hand in various areas is probably welcome. Equally, companies get people who will a) make the coffee and ideally do other, more substantial things to support the business and b) hopefully end up as entry-level employees. But still, those people are providing companies with their labor, the same as any other employee. They should be paid.

Ultimately, like every company, Condé Nast will still need such staff; now, perhaps, they will follow the example of other media outlets (including, um, Flavorwire) and actually pay said staff to do their jobs. It’s a remarkable concept, I know, but these are remarkable times.