Having read a few articles describing the climate of unpaid internships, I am
starting to feel frustrated with how people are framing the problem, and with
the solutions they are proposing. It’s that special kind of frustration, where
you see people kind of arguing in the right direction, but consistently
missing the point. Everyone seems to be interpreting the problem as: businesses
who want free labour luring the unemployed with some ephemeral promise of
I think it’s considerably more complicated than that.
This article is going to come off like a defence of unpaid internships, but it’s
not. I am against them. If you really can’t see anything wrong with very
vulnerable people being manipulated into working for free, then we probably have
no common ground upon which to base a discussion. Off you go then.
The point here is that without understanding the real allure of unpaid
internships, no-one has a hope of putting an end to the practice.
A reason to set the alarm
The common reason given (or assumed) for undertaking an unpaid internship is
that it may lead to paid work, possibly with the company offering the
internship. That may or may not be true, but it’s irrelevant. I’m going to
conjecture that this is almost always a reverse rationalisation for what I’m
about to describe.
You see, after you’ve been unemployed for even a few weeks, you start to feel.
And this is not even considering whether you have enough savings to pay the
bills, someone to support you, etc. Even living in reasonable comfort, if you
have spent your days confined to the house, sending out dozens of applications
and getting silence back, you will start to feel like crap. You will feel — and
I mean genuinely believe — that you will never escape the situation.
You feel cheated and humiliated for getting an apparently-useless education.
You feel paranoid and stupid, like there is some secret (but at the same time,
obvious to all but you) system that everyone else knows about.
If you started out in a stable relationship, you will possibly even question
whether your feelings are real, or if it is just dependency that keeps you
These are not exaggerations. Unemployment is devastating to most peoples mental
health. It is a poison. It is awful.
The mere act of getting dressed in smart-casual clothes, getting on public
transport with hundreds of other people, and setting foot in a separate building
can be an unimaginable reprive. The helplessness and feelings of futility that
comes from having your letters ignored are swept away as you indulge in having
other people notice that you exist and are able to do useful things.
Not only that, but you are now able to tell your friends and family that you are
doing… something! Anything! You have actual news instead of… well, shame
and awkward silence.
I cannot stress this enough. Just having a reason to set an alarm for the next
morning has a profound effect on someone who’s been slamming their head in the
car door of the job market.
Hence, trying to neutralise the claim of “it’ll lead to something paid” with
well researched statistics is not going to work, no matter what the numbers say.
That’s not the real reason. The hook is not the vague promise of future work.
It’s the work itself, paid or not, and the change in psychological state that
comes with it.