Work Is Work: Why Free Internships Are Immoral

The last word on unpaid students

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This summer, millions of students -- some graduating, some between school years -- will spend the summer working. Some will work at restaurants and on retail floors, where working is called "working." Some will work at think tanks and non-profit organizations, where working is called "interning." Estimates put the number of unpaid interns every year between 500,000 and one million. So, in a country where working for free is mostly illegal, a student population somewhere between the size of Tucson and Dallas will be working for free, in plain view.

A few years ago, I was a proud part of unpaid intern nation. I took unpaid internships at two think tanks, a campaign and a magazine. Were they useful? Definitely. Were they moral? Harder question.

Last week, I solicited comments on the dubious morality of unpaid internships. Hundreds of you responded. One large group spoke out in defense of unpaid internships. The other called them bad for students, bad for workers, and bad for society. I do not consider this an easy question. The lines between externships, volunteered time, education-on-the-job, and real work are not drawn in bright neon colors. But I'm coming down in the second camp: Unpaid internships aren't morally defensible.


Are internships indistinguishable from education? If they are, it's perfectly permissible that they be unpaid. Education doesn't pay salaries to students. Students aren't paid to take Psych 101. They're not paid to apply to graduate school. More than 90% of employers think that students should have between one and two internships before they graduate, according to a new study from research by Millennial Branding and Experience, Inc. Internships have become an inextricable part of the college experience and a pre-req for post-graduate employment.

But this presents a Catch-22 for lower-income students who want to work in politics, research, journalism, non-profits, or other industries that traffic in unpaid internships. These students need work that pays money, but they also need an internship to work in the field. As a result, poorer students are at permanent disadvantage in the summer internship market ... unless, as many of you suggested, we force schools to pay interns with credits or stipends.

But this outcome is unsatisfactory. Cash-strapped schools already face declining public funding. Now they're supposed to pay employers for work done by students? Surely, some colleges could do more to recognize the value of internships and improve their career services offices. But they shouldn't be in the job of paying other companies' salaries.

It's all well that unpaid internships are -- as a few commenters pointed out -- "better for students than actual college." But that's not a good reason to deny millions of workers salaries just because they're young. Plenty of entry-level positions better prepare people for work than college. If it is relevant that an unpaid internship is "useful", does it follow that only useless internships should have salaries? Of course not. Utility and salary have nothing to do with one another.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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