Why being a serial intern teaches you more about life than having a real job
My LinkedIn profile is longer than yours
In our modern, developed economy, it’s normal to work for free. Indeed, it’s encouraged and you should be grateful that you have been invited to do so. That’s capitalism.
Opposing this on economic or ideological grounds puts you at an enormous disadvantage. Some places won’t employ you unless you worked there for free. And granted, there are the good ones: getting your own desk at a PR firm, helping out at a national newspaper, spending the whole summer at Deloitte.
There are also the bad ones. Filing paperwork and organising stationary will show you exactly what you don’t want to do with your life.
Either way, the constant fear and uncertainty of doing placement after placement teaches you some things no careers officer or job straight after graduation can.
For example, you learn to invoke fake enthusiasm for banal tasks. Perhaps you have been asked to type out census data; perhaps you have been asked to stay long after 6pm (it would be overtime except you’re not getting paid). You will learn how to sound thrilled.
You will learn how to “get noticed”. For example, go full suit or stacked up heels when everyone else is in jeans; wear bright socks or a “wacky” barrette. Sure, you’ll look different, and your wardrobe will be the subject of an acidic group email thread.
Internships teach you to be comfortable in yourself: no one at work remembers your name so it’s just you and you, kid. You also learn how to spin like Malcolm Tucker. Filing paperwork? That’s office manager, mate. Answering the phone? Communications executive. Making tea? “Working on a big project”.
Seriously, it means you’re a little bit good at a lot of things that probably will come in useful in the future – like spreadsheets and doing background research.
Explaining work experience to those who don’t understand the culture can be more difficult than the job itself. Obviously your parents would prefer it if you got a real job. You go home (where you are still living, because you don’t get paid anything) and announce, proudly, that they’re “keeping you on for another week!” and Dad strokes his chin thoughtfully and gives you an unfathomable look. “so, do you have a job?” says Mum hopefully. When you explain that you don’t – YET – but it’s heading in the right direction, she looks a little like she ate a lemon.
It’s the old-fashioned Keynesian idea, you say: spend money to make money. Except that all your money is going on Pret and topping up your Oyster card. Whenever it’s offered, getting them to pay for lunch for is a big day because you can spend the money you would have spent on a tuna melt on a pint later.
You also learn to know your place. Namely, that you don’t have one. And everyone knows you must not speak to, go near, or make eye contact with the boss.
You grow insensible of awkwardness. They’re doing a fun office thing like celebrating a birthday? Of course you’re not invited! Someone asks you to sign a leaving card and you tell them, with a fat smile, that you don’t even work here. You linger around, wanting to be involved in pub trips. Once, you invited yourself and you know you made every person there feel uncomfortable. What power.
Just be patient. You are in an unspoken competition with the other interns: whoever leaves first loses. It’s not fair, but everyone knows it’s facetime that will get you that job. One day. Maybe.
The rewards speak for themselves though. You’ve got a LinkedIn profile longer than someone approaching retirement. The job market is your oyster. You will never be able to afford oysters.