05/30/2006 12:58 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The High Cost of Unpaid Internships

I have an op-ed in the New York Times today which expands on a digression I made in my book, Generation Debt, about the value of internships.

I argue that while many internships may be valuable preparations for work, and they have certainly become a rite of passage, the unpaid internship as an institution might have some adverse social effects: Newspapers and business magazines are full of articles expressing exasperation about how the Millennial-generation employee supposedly expects work to be exciting immediately, wears flip-flops to the office and has no taste for dues-paying. However true this stereotype may be, the spread of the artificially fun internship might very well be adding fuel to it.

By the same token, internships promote overidentification with employers: I make sacrifices to work free, therefore I must love my work. A sociologist at the University of Washington, Gina Neff, who has studied the coping strategies of interns in communications industries, calls the phenomenon "performative passion." ... How are twentysomethings ever going to win back health benefits and pension plans when they learn to be grateful to work for nothing?

They cut for space what I thought was an interesting piece of supporting evidence:

By Dept. of Labor regulations, in order for it to be legal to not pay interns, it must be true that "The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees or students," and "The trainees or students are not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the training period." These requirements directly contradict the premises upon which students take internships - that they will provide both valuable experience and a path to employment.

The first take-home message is obviously about education and the school-to-work system. You (the intern) are in charge of your own experience and how much you learn, no matter where you end up. To paraphrase Ann Landers, no one exploits someone as privileged as a college student without their permission.

Yet I'm of course also expressing a critique of business practices here, especially in "hot" industries like media, mine own. When internships were just emerging (say the people who have studied this) businesses were all worried that it would cost them money to have these kids around and have their employees dedicate time to training them. Now you see businesses of all sizes taking on interns, openly for the free labor. I have been at & heard of publications & publishers where they save the slush pile all year for the summer interns to go through. And Gawker, which doesn't pay its own interns, loves to post job ads wherein well-paid magazine editors, artists, and others seek full-time assistants for free.