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Why You Should Never Have Taken That Prestigious Internship

On June 11, a federal district court ruled against Fox Searchlight Pictures, a ruling which has given hope to millennials working in illegial unpaid internships, internships which lack educational value, displace paid employees, and are replacing entry-level jobs in more and more fields. The ruling has set off a mass of other lawsuits against other media corporations. For the first time, it appears that the unpaid interns are winning.

Two days before the ruling was announced, Sarah Kendzior was Tweeting truth to power on the behalf of millennials who are so often expected to work for free, or excluded from professional advancement due to their inability to work for free. Earlier this week, the anthropologist and opinion columnist at Al Jazeera made waves in the Twitterverse with a collection of 10 Tweets that succinctly and scathingly explained the creation of the unpaid internship "prestige economy."

She wrote:

(You can read the rest of the story on Sarah's blog.)

In our email interview, Sarah expanded on her ideas about the prestige economy and debt in higher education and explored new topics such as the future of American progressive activism.

Sam Bakkila (SB): In your recent set of Tweets (and a number of your previous articles), you explore how the "prestige economy" props up unsustainable and disabling debts in higher education, making the path to desirable careers paved with extended internships which are only available to the wealthy.

What do you think is the root cause of the prestige economy? Is it that capitalists (in business, academia, and the non-profit sector) now understand how to extract free labor from people's desire for an interesting (or at least interesting-sounding) life?

Sarah Kendzior (SK): This is a crisis of managed expectations. We have had a fundamental shift in what is “normal” corporate behavior and “normal” personal sacrifice. Because this shift is cloaked in terms like “meritocracy,” and espouses values like hard work and education, people have been reluctant to recognize it for what it is: the annihilation of mobility.

The American Dream dies hard, because it was not a dream. We saw it work for previous generations. And now we witness its erosion.

In one generation, working for free for people who can pay you went from something laughable, to something wealthy people were doing in a few fields, to something everyone was recommended to do, to something almost everyone has to do. Entry-level jobs were replaced with unpaid internships. That same monopoly on opportunity reshaped lower-skill labor. Jobs that once offered on-site training now require college degrees. In response, universities ramp up tuition, knowing that students have little choice but to pay to compete. Instead of options, there is one path to professional success — one exorbitantly expensive path.

The values of the wealthy elite became the rules that everyone had to live by.

At the same time, the rising cost of living made it “normal” to pay a lot of money for basic things. Ordinary life has been redefined as a luxury good. Health care and home ownership are unaffordable for most young people. This makes them feel desperate, particularly when they begin adult life saddled with stratospheric debt. They feel they have no options but to play along, even if that means being party to their own exploitation.

What they have discovered is that even playing by the rules will destroy you in a prestige economy. Institutional affiliation is promoted as a way to advance professionally by building personal prestige, which is why people are paying to intern at prestigious companies or going into debt for prestigious schools. But these are hollow victories, designed to suck you dry and leave you even more desperate. Prestige decreed by institution means nothing when institutions are rotting. I explain this later on.

SB: Let’s talk about the form, as well. As a writer, I’ve always thought of Twitter as a necessary publicity machine, but here you made a powerful and well-reasoned argument that was perhaps best expressed on Twitter. Do you think there’s something powerful about this ultra-short form medium?

SK: Twitter is as effective as a blog for making concise, multipoint arguments. I am careful when I write these to make each Tweet stand alone as well as contribute to a broader point. It is tough to pull off. Umair Haque (@umairh) is the master of this style, but I see others embracing it too.

Twitter forces you to think aphoristically. Some say the character limit inhibits creativity, but I see it as a challenge that pushes you to carefully consider every word. It is a good exercise for any writer.

SB: How can young people bankrupt the prestige economy when there is surplus labor and unemployment? We seem so replaceable to our internship bosses. What might the beginnings of a collective solution look like?

SK: An excellent question. I would not trade places with a new college graduate for all the money in the world. Actually, if I had all the money in the world, I would hire a new college graduate, so they could have the novel experience of getting paid.

Anyway, you are right. Young people are replaceable surplus labor. That is the world we live in. But it will not be our world forever. It is already breaking down. To further it along, we need a shift in perspective.

The first thing to realize is that success does not matter. This is true in two ways.

Success does not matter because, in a prestige economy, success has nothing to do with employability. Achievements are irrelevant in a system that rewards money over merit, brand over skill. You can do everything right and the door will not open unless you hold it open with money. That is the way the prestige economy is designed. That is why we now require years of unpaid internships and exorbitant advanced degrees. But the irony of the prestige economy is that even those who can pay to play cannot find a job that pays them.

Prestige rewards prestige, but older prestige has realized that younger prestige will work for more prestige — that is, for free. Even the winners are losing.

Second, prestige is success decreed by institutions. Success decreed by institutions means nothing when institutions are rotting. If you take an unpaid internship at a prestigious organization, you are banking that the prestige imparted by this affiliation will help you later. There is a good chance it will not. Institutions that use unpaid labor are hastening their own demise. They are sinking in quality and destroying their own reputations, which is what they bank on to hire unpaid labor in the first place.

Using short-term unpaid labor is a strategy of desperation. Take the long view — where are these companies headed? What will it mean to say you worked there in a few years? Is it worth your unpaid time? Look at Newsweek, the Atlantic. Reputational ruin comes fast.

So how to resolve the youth labor crisis? I would advocate not taking unpaid positions that support exploitation, but I realize that is an individual decision, and I understand young people often feel they have no choice. You are right that a collective solution is more viable.

The first step to a collective solution is to realize this is a collective problem.

If you are under 30 (and probably older), you are on the same sinking ship. It does not matter if you work at Burger King or at a think tank; odds are you can’t pay your bills and have an education you are being told is worthless. You are also told, either explicitly or tacitly, not to talk about it.

We need to remove the shame from struggle and privation. The exploiter should feel ashamed, not the person exploited. If people do not feel comfortable discussing their financial hardship, or their misgivings about an economy in which they are unfairly advantaged, then no progress will be made. Erase the stigma. Redefine success and failure. Don’t be ashamed of who you are. You are not your job — especially because you probably do not have a job.

If you grew up in the prestige economy, you have been trained to see life as a competition. But if you are young, you are losing no matter what. You will have better luck in the long run by rearranging the social order, rebuilding broken institutions, and broadening opportunity for all.

And that means you need to look out for the people at the bottom, because they know the score. Go talk to people — all kinds of people. There are lines of class and race and geography that are drawn — cross them and find similarities. If I had a more direct solution than this, I’d tell you. But we are in the beginning of this fight, and broadening the conversation, finding out what people want and what barriers they face and how to eliminate these barriers. That is the first step.

A denied dream is something that matters; it is not something to be dismissed for anyone, regardless where they come from or whose “fault” people believe it is. Mistaking bad luck for bad character is one of the great cruelties of our time.

A prestige economy promotes superiority through affiliation. Make your affiliation other people, not institutions set to screw you. Build new affiliations through empathy. You are in this together, so fight together — through legal channels, through public dialogue, through organized protest, but most of all, through standing up for others, seeing their struggle as your own. 

Prestige is not the same thing as respect. You can have self-respect; you cannot have self-prestige. Show respect to yourself and to others.

SB: In addition to your work on the prestige economy, you've also written about the plight of aspiring academics, who are increasingly stuck in adjunct jobs that pay close to or below poverty level wages. How the heck is college getting more and more expensive when a record number of classes are being taught by adjuncts who are barely being paid?

That’s an excellent question. Higher education is at the center of the prestige economy. Elite colleges are less concerned with providing an education than selling a lifestyle. Whereas a student has often chosen a college believing that its reputation would enhance his or her own, colleges will now solicit a wealthy student believing that the student’s prestige will enhance the college.

This is in some sense an old problem, but the skyrocketing increase in tuition over the last 15 years has led to a level of elitism and exclusivity — based on wealth disguised as merit — that has no contemporary parallel. Massive student debt is the collateral damage. As recent reports show, even merit aid is going to the wealthy.

So what are universities doing with the tuition money?

The money that could be spent on paying adjuncts is funding lavish infrastructure meant to lure in students with wealthy parents. At one university I know, they have dorms that look like luxury condos. They have a sushi bar and high-end restaurants. And they once paid an adjunct with “a line on the CV” — no money. They paid in prestige, and the adjunct took it.

Part of the problem is that adjuncts agree to these conditions. I have written extensively about why Ph.Ds accept their own exploitation, but the main reason is that academia will lock you out if you leave it, even if it is only to make a living until you get an academic job. Institutional affiliation is everything, and once you leave, you are gone. Adjuncting is often the only way to stay in the game.

What this means is that the class of university professors is narrowing. Academic positions are becoming limited to those who can afford them. You have to be independently wealthy to survive on an adjunct salary, which is usually less than $10,000 per year. Or the adjunct can go into poverty or debt, much like their students are doing.

I do not believe this system can sustain itself. In the next five to 10 years, we are going to see major changes in higher education. It’s going to be like the fall of the Soviet Union: internal rot combined with the activism of a few brave souls. You already see the latter in the adjuncts on strike.

The other possibility is that the adjuncts will be replaced by MOOCs. This will heighten inequalities and bolster the prestige economy. MOOCs have zero prestige, and are therefore being marketed to people with zero opportunities, to ensure they do not get any. The former USSR is a good metaphor for this scenario as well: tiny states of wealth and freedom bordered by massive stagnating states of the systemically screwed.

SB: I attended Harvard College, obviously a very elite and expensive university that situates itself as the "good" type of meritocracy because of its generous financial aid and strong diversity recruitment programs.

However, I always had some sense that this was a cop-out, though I didn't understand why until I read your take on the prestige economy.

Even though some of these elite universities have excellent financial aid, they are still propping up the idea that we can and should sort teenagers at age 17. Furthermore, as standard setters, they could still be driving tuition to creep up at other colleges that try to replicate and compete with their academic and non-academic programs and services, including public colleges that do not have the endowments to provide extensive need based financial aid, and that may not add as much to their graduate's earnings potential.

Do you agree with this? Are the most elite colleges and universities necessarily at the center of the creation of the prestige economy?

SK: The idea that elite institutions are giving adequate financial aid is an illusion.

First, most merit aid is going to the wealthy.

Second, most financial aid does not begin to cover the exorbitant cost of education, which rises far above the rate of inflation.

Third, aid rates do not take into account the large number of students who are so daunted by the price of elite schools, and so unable to navigate the financial aid process, that they do not even apply.

This is aristocracy masquerading as meritocracy. Higher education is the lynchpin of social inequality, but it really begins earlier than that, with public schools based on parental tax bracket. Add to this the influence factors in admission — private schools, discrimination against high school students that have to work instead of “enrich” themselves through activities, expensive SAT prep courses, and so on — and you see how early this stratification begins.

Higher education was supposed to be a way for poor, smart kids to increase their professional options, not to be punished for how they were born. And now it is a system that makes poor kids even poorer through debt, which will carry on to the next generation and curtail that generation’s opportunities as well. I wrote about this recently for Al Jazeera.

If college tuition were affordable, many social and economic problems in America would be solved. But there is a segment of society that does not want these problems solved, because the immobility of the majority benefits that small but influential sector. True meritocracy frightens elites, especially in a time of diminished job opportunities. This is a way to kill the competition.

Many baby boomers that benefited from meritocracy in earlier decades are responsible for perpetrating its demise and for the perpetuating the myth of its endurance. Meritocracy is a zombie reanimated by debt.

SB: I think that one of the great ironies is that the prestige economy is becoming more and more emphasized right as its foundation is falling apart. For example, doing an unpaid internship at a publishing company will probably not get you a book deal. This has probably always been true. But now, even book deals aren't making that much money anymore, and more and more bookstores are closing as people turn to Amazon and e-books. 

It's easier than ever for anyone to start their own blogs, write for Huffington Post, get their voice out there in some way. Self-publishing books is becoming more viable than ever. Kickstarter and other crowd-sourced funding is opening the door for people to find funding for their own projects.

Will the horizontal nature of online media and publishing help to kill the intern/prestige economy? Or will it be just another way to replace paid labor with unpaid labor, à la Huffington Post? 

SK: That’s a very good point. Media is an interesting field, because you are finally seeing some pushback in terms of unpaid and exploited labor, which you are not yet seeing in policy and other fields. You can also track the erosion in quality in online publications that do not pay their writers.

The idea that a journalist should not be paid anything for their work — that “exposure” is an acceptable currency — is very recent and is a product of the recession. It stemmed both from a loss of revenue for media companies throughout the 2000s, peaking in 2008, and from the desperation of young writers who could not find jobs in media but wanted their names in print.

The 2000s were a decade of reality TV, of stars that were just like us, of being famous for the sake of being famous, of celebrity as a deeply sought commodity. It warped the perspective of youth, who saw attention as its own reward. But thankfully Generation Federline is waking up from that coma.

In the post-employment economy, attention is not its own reward. Attention is its own punishment.

What I am seeing now is the rejection of prestige for money. I see writers who used to work for the Atlantic, HuffPost or other non-paying publications move to lesser-known publications that do pay. The quality of the paying publications is going up, while the quality of the non-paying publications is going down, because you get what you pay for. There are exceptions to this on both ends, but basically it is true.

I would encourage young professional writers to stick with places that pay, even if they only pay a little. Look at the New Inquiry; fom what I understand, it pays $50 per article. But that is a first-rate publication. That payment, miniscule as it is, shows respect for the writers, and the high quality of the publication as a whole shows respect for the audience.

Writers just starting out could benefit from blogging. But never blog for free for someone who can afford to pay you. (Here is a hint: If they are part of a corporation, they can pay you.) Blog on your own, uncensored. Join group blogs on a topic you are passionate about, or start your own blog. Never give your talent away. Hone it on your own terms, and then demand compensation from those who can give it to you.

SB: I appreciated your article in Al-Jazeera, "The View From Flyover Country," in which you wrote:

"But when the American Dream is dying for everyone, St Louis might be the one to rise up. In St Louis, people know what happens when social mobility stalls, when lines harden around race and class. They know that if you have a job and work hard, you should be able to do more than survive. They know that every person, every profession, is worthy of dignity and respect."

I feel like you are really onto something, and I agree with the spirit of your article, especially as someone who is from Pittsburgh, a post-industrial "rust belt" city. But I also feel that the rust belt hasn't exactly been a breeding ground for political progressives in recent years. How exactly would St. Louis and cities like it rise up? 

SK: If social revolution comes to America, it will not come from New York, San Francisco or other cities where the middle class has been obliterated or is struggling to survive. It will come from St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Detroit, New Orleans — cities where you can afford to fail. When success is a stranglehold, true freedom is failure. The freedom to fail is the freedom to innovate, to experiment, to challenge.

St. Louis is becoming a city of unlikely agitators. Eric Garland, a fearless economic analyst who left the corruption of D.C. behind, lives here. So does Rebecca Schuman, a prominent critic of the academic job racket. So does Bahodir Choriyev, the leader of one of Uzbekistan’s biggest opposition parties. People like us could never afford to live in an expensive city and do what we do, say what we say, because our energy would be spent on survival.

Fear inhibits innovation. In expensive cities, people live in constant fear. A small wrong move can upend everything, so they conform, terrified of losing their jobs, apartments, health insurance.  They conform intellectually, and they conform in behavior. They cling to a career ladder with a drop-off to hell. I don’t judge them. People do what they need to do to survive. But when survival is an aspiration, society has failed.

When the cost of living is low, you have less to lose by losing. It is terrible to be poor and precarious anywhere. But it is far worse in expensive cities powered on the exploitation of ambition, cities where so much rides on so little opportunity. It is more liberating to live in a place where the illusions have already been shattered. St. Louis is not a city of hypotheticals.

Movements for widespread social and economic reform require a diversity of participants. St. Louis has a reputation for racial divisiveness, for social gulfs between rich and poor, but that has not been my experience, although it was my experience when I lived in New York. (This subway map shows what I’m talking about.) I realize my experience in St. Louis might not be typical, but it is what I know.

When I went to the fast food workers strikes in St. Louis, people from all walks of life came out to support them. People were looking out for each other, and that was inspiring to see. But the dark takeaway of those strikes is that the plight of the working poor is so terrible in St. Louis that they have little to lose by protesting. They struck out at birth, so now they strike on the streets.

They know that when the game is rigged, you have a better chance of winning if you change the rules than if you keep stepping up to the plate. America’s educated youth could learn something from them.

SB: What was the question you wish I had asked but didn't?

SK: I don’t wish for things because I like to be surprised. Thank you for your fantastic questions.

Follow Sarah Kendzior on Twitter at @sarahkendzior, and PolicyMic Pundit Sam Bakkila on Twitter at @sbakkila.

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