The Real Elite: Unpaid Interns

Would you pay £3,000 for 2 weeks of unpaid work experience? Working for free has suddenly got alot more expensive, says ELLIE PITHERS.

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You know you’ve reached your final year at Cambridge when you burst back into the bubble in October, and your university friends bounce into your daily existence asking not, ‘How was your summer?’, but rather, ‘How was your internship?’

These days, it seems, you are no one if you haven’t fought your way through a harsh selection process to earn the privilege of spending a minimum of four weeks slogging away at some soul-sapping institution pretending to be having a great ‘experience’, and earning a shitload in the process. After-work drinks at the pub are a minefield for those not versed in the art of acronym – PWC, UBS, JP – and if you’re working somewhere that can’t be reduced to 3 brief letters, then you’re obviously not worth talking to.

These mysterious acronyms are ostensibly picking the crème de la crème of Cambridge undergraduates to be their bitches for around ten weeks in their summer holidays – and speaking to (mostly bitter) non-Oxbridge undergraduates, one is left with the impression that elitism is rife amongst these top banks and businesses, who look for an Oxbridge watermark before they consider anything else about the candidate.

But the real elitism isn’t in these internships where there is a designated system in place to recruit the best people for the job. It’s the unpaid internships that are elitist, the placements that require contacts, snazzy letter-writing skills, and a huge scoop of luck. These are the placements that require often the same number of gruelling hours as some poor sucker at Goldman Sachs but leave you wedged firmly into your overdraft, grovelling to your parents as you attempt to scrounge enough cash off them for a 2for1 supper at Pizza Express with your mates who are living it up at Mezza (that’s Merrill Lynch, duh).

According to Tatler’s Richard Dennen, interns at various media companies, art galleries and fashion houses are being “chosen like racehorses – legs and breeding don’t count for nothing.” This suggests that internships are being snapped up by twenty-somethings called Coco, who’ve just graduated from Edinburgh with a 2:2 in History of Art, and are looking for a big of light entertainment while Daddy keeps the handouts rolling and congratulates himself for instilling in his fillies such an unfailing work ethic.

There is a grain of truth in this stereotype, since working for nothing now appears to be costing a whole lot more than the tube ride into town. Work experience has become an exclusive opportunity, worthy of a spot in the top lots of charity auctions – precious internships have literally become gold dust. Unpaid work placements were auctioned at a Tory Party fundraiser in February of this year, with bids reaching £3,700 for work experience (i.e. answering phones) at Condé Nast, £3,000 for a spot of tea-making at Ecosse Films, and £2,500 for the privilege of fetching the skinny peach muffin for the top dog’s breakfast at a contemporary art dealer.  One lucky American won the bidding war for an internship at American Vogue at a charity auction in April, but it cost him a not-so-cool $42,500 (£27,000).

I’ve come across a few fellow interns whose stiff upper lip fails to hide an overly large pair of front teeth but, on the whole, unpaid internship positions seem to me to be filled with middle class kids, desperate to keep the printer filled up with paper and get the phone answered in under two rings. There is obviously a certain amount of exclusivity to these positions, since most university graduates who are saddled with three years worth of debt obviously couldn’t afford to spend yet another year earning zilch, but in that case, working in London is exclusive – if working for free at Tatler is out of reach for a working class kid, then so is living on the tube line.

Some suggested solutions include giving every exploited and unpaid intern the minimum wage, forcing businesses to pay basic sums of money to their exhausted runners. But in this era of fire and brimstone, when every rise and fall of the FTSE 100 is reported as if it’s an apocalyptic event worthy of a spot in the Book of Revelations, forcing companies to pay their interns would simply make them cut their internship programs. The IPPR Think tank and the campaign group Internocracy might have argued in July of this year that private sector firms are “almost certainly” breaking the law by offering unpaid internships, but if they start prodding companies to offer a wage, then the opportunities will dry up. And most students would rather get a foot in the door and kudos for their CV by working for free, than get paid and have a seriously reduced chance of getting any work experience at all.

There reaches a point when everything becomes elitist. The irritating fact is that if other people are willing to work hard for nothing, and willing to complete a work experience task that happens to include picking up the editor’s dry cleaning, then you have to do it, too. Sometimes having a Cambridge degree counts for nothing.

Unless, of course, you start writing for The Tab. We won’t pay you, but we won’t ask you to start getting our coffee either.