let’s not give big companies free labor anymore

It’s time to start figuring out your summer plans, college kids. Time to start perusing the job boards for something that will make you look good and won’t be too boring. Time to find another unpaid internship.

Or not.

I’ve done unpaid internships. Honestly, they were all pretty cool. I had a good time. It wouldn’t have occurred to me to demand money for whatever I was doing. I just felt lucky to have something to put on my resume. I’m not complaining about not getting money out of it.

Why am I not complaining? Because when I took the internships, my parents paid for my food and my rent and my random trips to Urban Outfitters during lunch. Because they could afford it. Because I am lucky.

The idea of unpaid internships has always been classist. Theoretically, in the best case scenario, an unpaid internship is an opportunity for someone (who has the financial resources to work uncompensated) to develop skills, experiences, and connections that they wouldn’t otherwise have. In other words: The ideal unpaid internship is basically an extra gold star for rich kids to put on their resumes.

(Not that those kids don’t work hard and learn a lot. They totally do, a lot of the time. But they only even get the opportunity to work hard because they could afford to work for free.)

Anyway, those were the good old days. Now it’s way worse.

Now, according to a recent New York Times article, employers have caught on. They’ve realized there’s a bottomless pool of privileged 20-somethings who will do anything to get a job in a cool industry. Journalism. Film. Music. And companies have realized this: they don’t have to really hire anybody. One intern gets tired of it? Find a new one. Easy.

Millennials are notorious for our weird desire for a satisfying career, so I think a lot of us are willing to work uncompensated in order to do something interesting. A lot of us don’t think it’s crazy to put the meaningfulness of our work before our paychecks.  And that’s a pretty great thing about millennials! We’re ambitious! We don’t want to settle for a life of meaningless cubicle nonsense! We follow our dreams!

But it means we’re easy to take advantage of. Scratch that — if we’re lucky, we’re easy to take advantage of. The unlucky have to get summer jobs, with paychecks and unflattering uniforms, that don’t necessarily look good on your resume but pay for your meal plan.

But what if the endless free labor market dried up?

What if we just stopped? What if we didn’t take unpaid internships? We (i.e. the young people) should unionize or something! We need to go on strike, and get pissed off at the traitors who cross the picket line.

I should point out that some industries have every reason not to pay their interns. Charities, politicians, and start-ups usually truly don’t have money to spare. If you’re trying to work for a nonprofit, I have no issue with you volunteering your time. That’s fine. And if you want to get your foot in the door at a startup, chances are, they won’t have the money to pay you at first. They probably aren’t paying themselves at first either. That’s fine.

But if you’re working for some hugely profitable company, and they decide to pay you in “experience,” they’re full of shit. Don’t work for them. Make them go a week without free labor. Make them realize how many employees they actually need. Make them reevaluate their budget, because if they can’t afford to stay in business without free 20-somethings running around doing their work for them, they need to like, address that.

And in the meantime, find a summer job babysitting. Or screw the whole job thing and go travelling. Get off the “high school high school sports high school volunteering college internship college internship college internship college internship job marriage children job” track for a couple months. And if anyone asks, say you’re fighting a classist and exploitative system.

People tend not to ask questions after that.

  • Aquaria

    No for-profit corporation should have unpaid labor.


    Any scumbag company that’s such exploitative filth that they won’t pay people for their work is always the scumbag company that will exploit you as a paid employee.


    Count on it.