Are Unpaid Internships Destroying America?

In the future, writes WIRED editor Chris Anderson, everything will be free. And in the case of jobs, the future is now, because unpaid internships abound, especially in the summer months, with college students flocking to DC and New York like the salmon of Capistrano. Even former masters of the universe are prepared to trade the expectation of comp'ed lunches for the expectation of hot office coffee. Are unpaid internships one-part education/one-part natural expression of the labor market? Or are they spoiling rich young Millennials and transforming the country for the worse?

The case against paid internships is long and with much merit. Some of the best points are crystallized in this New York Times op-ed by Anya Kamenetz, whose salvo includes:

1) Unpaid internships are another implicit leg up for rich kids who can afford to work for a summer without money. Otherwise they send less fortunate kids into even worse debt.

2) Internships promote "over-identification" with employers. In other words, we force ourselves to wear a happy face to justify the sacrifice of working without pay. In the long term, this teaches workers to respect their bosses too much to organize unions. After all, if you're grateful to work for nothing, who needs pensions?

3) Interns are like illegal immigrants. Says Kamenetz: "They create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or in the case of interns, literally nothing." But they're worse, because instead of doing the jobs nobody wants to do, college interns do the jobs that everybody their age wants to do, but that only the wealthier can afford.

Shame on you wage-depressing, union-killing interns! But wait. Surely, there is some good to be said about our Intern Nation. For one, internships can be invaluable experience for the jobs students want to pursue. Kamenetz wants to make a point that working for money is ipso facto valuable, because it's money, but I'm not sure it makes sense:

Long hours on your feet waiting tables may not be particularly edifying, but they teach you that work is a routine of obligation, relieved by external reward, where you contribute value to a larger enterprise.

Why aren't internships a "routine of obligation" that contribute value to a larger enterprise? As a former intern, I'm not going to be so bold as to put a value on my contribution to the larger organizations where I worked, but I can say that the days felt long and sometimes unedifying and I most certainly learned the meaning of routine obligations. And although the external reward didn't come in the form of a direct deposit, I do think the internships paid off, inasmuch as they led to other internships and, eventually, to jobish things. As a friend of current and former waiters, I agree that those jobs carry lessons and value, but as a friend of current writers, I think I can say with absolute certainty that writing for a magazine is better practice for writing for a magazine.

The issue of payment is trickier. On the one hand, the case for unpaid internships implicitly hurting less fortunate students seems air-tight. But it's not the responsibility or the interest of businesses like magazines and non-profits who operate on slim budgets and narrow margins to design an internship that can accomodate even the least fortunate. One solution could be for colleges to expand their acceptance of accredited internships or financial compensation for them. A summer at a non-profit think tank in DC is an education in policy, politics and the serpentine navigation of Senate offices. If colleges want to give all their students a leg up in the post-grad world where internships are a requisite, why not step up their internship financing and accreditation? It's one thing to lament that fact that most internships don't pay. But it's just wrong for anybody, especially colleges, to pretend they don't pay off.