Opportunity Costs: The True Price of Internships

Artwork by Imp Kerr

Every summer, thousands of interns descend on New York City in order to work for nothing. They flow into empty dorm rooms or onto friends’ sofas to sleep, burrow unnoticed into illegal sublets and surf couches longterm. At work, they occupy desks and offices recently vacated by laid-offs. They file papers, get coffee, and try to make themselves noticed, but not too much so.

No one knows how many of these interns there are, partly because much of their unsalaried work is illegal and therefore covert. Interns as a whole are having a cultural moment: the intern appears on television and in gossip magazines; there are celebrity interns and luxury internships for sale. MTV’s reality show The Hills took as its premise that young, beach-blond Angelenos were sick of tanning by the ocean—they wanted internships instead. Kanye West, whose earnings as of May 2012 were $35 million a year, recently completed an internship at the Italian luxury fashion house of Fendi. But the intern’s overall place in the workforce is largely unclear. Legally obscure and professionally meek, interns are difficult to classify because their position requires invisibility. One of the intern’s great skills is not to cause a fuss, not to raise any trouble.

Even though many work far more than the average workweek (Xuedan Wang, an unpaid intern who sued the Hearst Corporation last spring, claimed that she worked up to fifty-five hours a week at Harper’s Bazaar), most will never even think to ask for compensation for their time. (Although profit-making companies provide the majority of paid internships, the distribution of unpaid internships is roughly equal between for-profit and nonprofit organizations.) Compliant, silent and mostly female, these interns have become the happy housewives of the working world.

The intern’s obscurity and uncertainty characterize a labor force that has grown more contingent, relying on part-time, unstable, and insecure work. Interns will work for months without pay, benefits, or basic workplace protection. It’s not unheard of for students with advanced degrees to take on internships, and, on the opposite end of the educational spectrum, for companies to characterize their workers as interns in order to not to compensate them. Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics maker, took on fourteen-year-old students as “interns” to build the iPhone 5. The explosion of internships, however, is not just a question of changing economic circumstance. In their submissiveness and tractability, their willingness to perform work for free, interns also illustrate the flexibility and obedience demanded by contingency.

A feminist lens can help us look at this changing work. Although interns have entered en masse into workplaces in the past few decades, their complacence isn’t new. We have only to look at the parallel case—women and their household work. Indeed, if we are to understand how to strengthen the position of those who do contingent labor, we need to look more carefully at the similarities of contingent labor, women’s work, and the free labor of interns.


Studies of precarious work vary in their estimation of the change in work patterns in recent years, but even modest assessments give a sense of growing instability. A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 calculated that when one added contract workers, temps, the self-employed and part-time workers, the total percentage of contingent workers in the United States came to almost 30 percent of the workforce. With the financial crises of 2008, this instability has been compounded. According to one study, job separation for workers between the ages of twenty-five and fifty-four increased by 33 percent between 2007 and 2009. In 2010, the Department of Labor calculated that up to 30 percent of companies routinely misclassified regular employees as independent contractors in order to avoid paying benefits.

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2000 calculated that when one added contract workers, temps, the self-employed and part-time workers, the total percentage of contingent workers in the United States came to almost 30 percent of the workforce. With the financial crises of 2008, this instability has been compounded.

The economic trajectory is toward ever-increasing employment flexibility. According to Guy Standing, a professor at the University of Bath who has popularized the idea of “precarious work,” the growth of contingent labor came from a combination of neoliberal economic policy and the globalizing economy. Neoliberal economists since the 1970s have advocated labor market flexibility—fewer labor protections and deunionization—as the solution to economic stagnation. As globalization sped up, governments and multinational corporations pushed each other to erase regulations in a jobs quality race to the bottom. Millions of people, even among the affluent, have entered into jobs without security.


A “flexible” corporation requires flexible workers, and as the labor market has shifted, so have the conditions placed on its participants. Flexibility doesn’t just manifest itself in global economic trends. It has now become a central part of the office worker’s performance.

Advice for interns usually stresses their need to be adaptable, as well as enthusiastic, submissive, and obedient. Common tips available on the Internet include that the intern “be a chameleon,” shifting his or her behavior to suit the current workplace. Another counsels constant apology: “I would suggest starting off [emails] with ‘Sorry to bother you’ the first few times.” Countless job descriptions repeat their demands: “flexible, energetic, creative, and enthusiastic”; “flexible, enthusiastic and highly motivated with a positive attitude”; “enthusiastic and flexible learners, capable of both taking direction and working independently.”

By requiring that workers at the beginning of their careers learn these behaviors, employers don’t just introduce newcomers to an office environment, they teach them how to be grateful for whatever work opportunities they may have, no matter how unfruitful. No task should be too unpleasant and no job too much of an imposition for someone just happy to have the chance to work. It’s not enough to recognize one’s gratefulness for actually having a job. The key is in showing it. “Thank you for this opportunity,” runs the mantra.

This places workers in a historically feminine position. The insecure and low-paid jobs traditionally associated with women have grown as the type of employment usually associated with men—regular, unionized and stable—has declined. The expanding women-dominated industries—in particular, retail, home health and personal care—are also industries marked by instability and few labor protections. For home health and personal care, where women make up 87.7 percent of the workers and which is expected to grow 50 percent from 2008 to 2018, the median pay is about $10 per hour.

The quality of work itself has also become more gendered. The behavioral characteristics demanded by an uncertain office are ones traditionally associated with women—flexibility, submission, gratitude. “One does not need to be an essentialist about traditionally ‘female traits,’” philosopher Nina Power writes in One Dimensional Woman, “to think that there is something notable going on here….The professional woman needs no specific skills as she is simply professional, that is to say, perfect for the kind of work that deals with communication in its purest sense.” In an uncertain office environment, we’re all expected to be demure, enthusiastic, quick learners, and adaptable, the characteristics of a good secretary.

In addition, among her growing responsibilities, the unpaid intern has become a sexual symbol (think Monica Lewinsky in her blue dress). “N+interns,” a satirical Twitter feed started by interns at a New York literary magazine, mocks the expectations. The tweets veer from commentary on the submissiveness of the low-level office worker—“‘Please may I mop?’ chirped her editorial assistant. The editor grimaced. ‘I can’t ask you to,’ she replied”—to actual buying into of the sexualized image of intern submission: “‘Intern on Couch’ (2012). 5 ft. 4 in. For pricing, inquire within.”

And unlike secretaries, interns are not protected under many sexual harassment laws. As recently as 2008, an intern’s sexual harassment claim was dismissed because Washington D.C.’s anti-discrimination law defined an “employee” as one who gained compensation for his or her work.


Although precarity has become a buzzword, the phenomenon isn’t exactly new. Labor historians often point out that before the New Deal, all work was essentially precarious with little government protection. In 1930, organized labor encompassed 7.5 percent of the U.S. workforce; today, 11.8 percent of the workforce is unionized. In between, when unionization rates reached their height in the fifties, at close to 35 percent, workers had more protections.

This leads some to advocate for extending the reach of organized labor to encompass white-collar contingent work. Charles Heckscher, professor at the Department of Labor Studies and Employment at Rutgers University, points to the Freelancers Union, a nonprofit organization that provides healthcare to its members, mostly independent “knowledge workers” (of which he is a board member). (See Atossa Abrahamian, “The ‘I’ in Union,” Dissent, Winter 2012.) A union made of individuals with similar needs but disparate crafts, he says, could provide its members with an infrastructure—choices, knowledge, community—that would make it possible to sustain an independent career. The union, however, caters only to a particular sector. Not all professions are eligible; you must have made $10,000 in the past six months or prove that you’ve worked twenty days in the last eight weeks to qualify for health insurance, as documented in Atossa Abrahamian’s piece on the union. Some have argued that traditional unions should expand their ranks to include part-time workers and encourage job sharing. Labor historian Dorothy Sue Cobble wants unions to expand their discourse on labor. “Good jobs might involve both a security of income and a flexibility to them,” she says. “In the nineteenth century the labor movement’s demand…was the dream for self-employment and to be your own boss. That’s a really powerful impulse.”

Others, such as Guy Standing, who believe that workers face an entirely new situation, seek a more utopian solution: a universal basic income (UBI), a sum to be given to each individual regardless of his or her labor output or behavior, paid for through progressive taxation. This income, Standing argues, would provide the stability required for individuals in the precarious age to be “rational, tolerant and compassionate.” In addition, “a basic income, would also give people more control over their time.” The security of a constant stream of money would allow individuals to make decisions outside of the squeeze a precarious economy creates. (This argument for what was once called a guaranteed annual income is a variation on that advocated in the seventies by welfare rights advocates and even, in very truncated form, by the Nixon White House. Because it was associated in the public mind with welfare, and because the level at which it could gain political support was so low, it could not gain support from either the left-liberals or conservatives.)

However, if we want to build the strength of precarious workers, we need first to figure out a way to talk about work that encompasses the way that people work today. Fighting for improvements to contingent labor requires a deeper look at the gendered features of that work.

Traditionally, women’s work wasn’t work. Cooking dinner or cleaning the floor, however long it took, if it wasn’t done by a servant, wasn’t labor—these were an expression of love and duty, an extension of a woman’s natural role as a wife and a mother. Why ask for monetary compensation, the belief went, when a satisfied family at the dinner table was the only fulfillment a woman needed? “Please,” asked the mother, “may I mop?” Further, because of the importance of their role at home, any work for wages was merely accessory to a woman’s primary duties. Women were secondary breadwinners; they didn’t need full-time jobs. Any financial compensation—“pin money”—was incidental to their crucial place within the household. As a result, women seeking to work outside the home were more frequently used for short-term contracts and part-time jobs. Women have historically made up about two-thirds of the part time contingent or casual labor force, according to labor historian Alice Kessler-Harris. This gender imbalance remains today: women are almost twice as likely as men to work part-time. With internships, the disproportion is even starker. According to one study by Intern Bridge, a research and consulting firm, more than three in four unpaid interns were women. The industries that rely on internships, such as fashion, media and the arts, are feminized ones.

Interns, too, would sooner think of themselves as doing almost anything but work, even as they are putting in long hours. As Ross Perlin notes in his book Intern Nation, students working full-time jobs will still consider themselves students. Even long months working unpaid are described as “an educational experience,” “a networking opportunity,” “a chance to try something new.”

Who can blame interns? Their detachment from their work is part of a larger devaluation of what work is; this language hardly stands alone in a period when so much is described as non-work. We hear talk about “a post-work economy” and a nation of self-starters. The flexible worker is more than a laborer. She is a creator or an entrepreneur. Timothy Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek has spent more than four years on the New York Times best-seller list. Part of the hope of a non-work language, Perlin told me by phone, is that “if there’s no work, then there will be no more workers…that whole framework will evaporate.” Instead of workers, “we will be self-branding consumer entrepreneurs, going about our freewheeling ways in the world.” There’s likely an element of class prejudice to this distancing as well—why see yourself as similar to the office janitor when you could be a larval-stage CEO?

But on a basic level, this mindset encourages working people not to demand compensation, even as they are tailoring their entire lives to a vision of themselves as good employees. If workers do not see themselves as workers, they cannot ask for workers’ rights.


The radical feminist movement of the 1970s understood that the insistence on women’s natural role kept women clinging to their place in the home, despite their unhappiness. “Not only has housework been imposed on women, but it has been transformed into a natural attribute of our female physique and personality, an internal need, an aspiration, supposedly coming from the depth of our female character,” wrote Silvia Federici in her 1975 pamphlet, “Wages Against Housework.” Before women could question the roles assigned to them, they needed to understand that these were roles that could be questioned. One of the main methods of leading to this change of thinking was consciousness-raising, in which women would share individual experiences in order to illustrate the social forces that unified them. By pooling their own experiences, women could understand that their unhappiness at home was not private—it was the product of a larger system. This did not stop at housework itself—the feminist movement questioned mothering, marriage, wifehood—all thought to be natural places for women.

Throughout these attempts, feminists repeatedly stressed that housework, child-rearing, and other aspects of being a woman were not natural behavior for the female sex, they were work. “Although we can ask for everything, day care, equal pay, free laundromats, we will never achieve any real change unless we attack our female role at its roots,” Federici continued. “Our struggle for social services, i.e. for better working conditions, will always be frustrated if we do not first establish that our work is work.” It was this insistence on housework as work that led many women to demand compensation for their time, whether through the Wages for Housework movement or questioning other roles to which women were meant to quietly assent.

Many of the policy proposals asked for by the Wages for Housework movement—like government compensation for wives who stayed at home—never came to fruition. But the time spent on housework by women has decreased (and time spent by men has risen somewhat) since the 1970s (women spent an average of twenty-six hours on housework a week in 1976; in 2005, they spent seventeen hours, according to the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan) and women’s participation in the workforce has increased. More important, the insistence on work means that most women do not grow up thinking that their highest achievement could be to be a housewife. However strongly the myths of natural motherhood and other feminine ideals persist into the twenty-first century, most American women do not grow up tailoring their lives to fulfill a supposedly innate role.


Interns must make clear that their time and effort, too, have value and that value is more than the remote idea of a “networking opportunity” or one step further up a mythical career ladder. Work is not, as the internship setting would suggest, an exchange of gifts. Work is an exchange of time for money.

Consciousness-raising for interns? Already activists for wages for internships have begun to follow a similar scheme, gathering interns for shared experiences and culling examples of particularly egregious work. Intern Labor Rights, an outpost of the Arts and Labor Occupy group, describes as part of its outreach how internships “devalue the fundamental dignity of work” and how “unpaid internships produce a culture of self-denigration in the workforce.” Such efforts still operate on a small scale, but they point to a growing sense among interns of their rights and worth. A small ripple of lawsuits early in 2012—after the Department of Labor issued guidelines that suggested it would crack down on the practice—has prompted a number of employers to pay their interns.

No one would expect someone to go into a factory and work six months for free.

Legal recourse is crucial, for as long as our definition of work excludes the work that people do now, broader change for precarious workers will be unsuccessful. Even recent attempts to bolster the opportunities for organization among workers define “employee” so narrowly that they exclude many of those who need help organizing. The ill-fated Employee Free Choice Act, introduced in Congress in 2009 as an attempt to increase the ability of workers to organize through such mechanisms as a card check rather than a union election, never had a chance. Going back to the New Deal, the National Labor Relations Act, which currently protects employees, excluded not only independent contractors but also agricultural workers, domestic workers, and anyone who had any supervisory responsibility.

Interns, says Eric Glatt, a former intern who sued Fox Searchlight in fall 2011, are “so accustomed to learning, learning, learning [that] they don’t have a sense of when they are contributing to someone’s profit making . . . they themselves don’t think that they have anything to offer employers until they are at a really seasoned level.

“The decision I made to sue was because I recognized a real structural problem with the economy,” he says.

“No one would expect someone to go into a factory and work six months for free. People understand that automatically as labor.”

If we are to fix the problems of contingent work, we need to find a new way to talk about work that encompasses all the work done today—unpaid, part-time, and insecure. To start, we can look at a movement that accomplished just that. The Wages for Housework movement and its rhetoric provide a model for a new way to talk about work, one that pushes all workers to see the value of their efforts. We should take their efforts seriously. Perhaps then we can organize for the compensation our time deserves.


Madeleine Schwartz has written for the Believer and the New Inquiry among other publications.