Last week’s lead story in The Eye by Zack Etheart (“The end of the internship,” Sept. 19) set out to explain, “how a culture of unpaid labor is finally paying off.” Though the article followed several current students and recent grads who landed jobs before their graduation, what it missed while chronicling these isolated personal success stories is a larger perspective of the exploitative unpaid internship system as a whole. By highlighting the stories of a self-identified “lucky” few, the article endorses an unjust status quo—making it that much more difficult to break out of the cycle for the majority of unlucky students whose unpaid work and sacrifices doesn’t pay off.
The status quo is made clear: “Having five to six internships on your résumé is the baseline prerequisite to being considered” for work in creative industries. While the article focuses mainly on writing and editing jobs, the problem of expected, serial internships affects many other fields and the students interested in working in them. Yet this requirement of working multiple internships for free is based on the assumption that students have the money in the first place to be able to volunteer their labor without compensation.
Etheart briefly mentions this critique only to brush it aside without either discussion or justification. Offering that students who are employed while still taking classes have more money to support themselves or won’t have to work for free after graduation doesn’t explain how students without money should go about funding unpaid opportunities. He casually mentioned Center for Career Education grants are certainly an option. For plenty of students who don’t qualify for grants for one reason or another, unpaid internships are either out of the question or must be funded through other, paid jobs—the same “work-study job somewhere in Lerner” that Etheart off-handedly seems to relegate to those too lazy (read: often too poor) to work for free.
This falsely meritocratic language is another pillar supporting the unjust system. By writing off students as “lethargic” who are unable to intern for free or whose unpaid work doesn’t lead to paid employment, we become the problem in the stead of an economy that expects us to work without compensation. Those whose “effort panned out,” and who “made time for more work, and less play,” become those worthy of a salary. And students who aren’t as lucky become those who didn’t work hard enough to deserve employment. Blame falls on the students shut out of a system of privilege when it should fall on the system itself.
None of this is to say that the students in the article shouldn’t be commended for their hard work and initiative. They should, and it’s not their fault they happened to benefit from a system, just as it’s not the fault of the majority who don’t benefit. But even success stories can be looked at critically. If it’s true we’ve been conditioned to accept that “if one job offer comes your way, take it, no questions asked,” than even when paid, we’re still exploited. We should be empowered to evaluate jobs with poor benefits, little—if any—means for upward mobility, or menial and less demanding work than what we’ve done in school or for free. The fact that we’re too afraid to ask questions is nothing to celebrate.
It’s not just that, intentionally or not, Etheart paints those students unable to acquire a résumé full of unpaid internships as participating in “indulgent leeching.” Stories about how an unjust culture pays off for a lucky few only promotes injustice. There’s been plenty of writing recently about just this, and it’s disappointing that the article refuses to engage with it. The sooner we speak up, the sooner we stop accepting exploitation out of fear, the sooner we change the system.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in human rights. She is a former editorial page editor for Spectator.
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