The Internment of Youth


[Rejected from two more job apps. Depression alleviated next day by buying olives. Olives are lovely. Good food promotes good mood. TV said that. An article pitch rejected. Idea taken by editor pitched to. Devastated. Also ran out of olives. Double devastated. Graduate life is difficult.

Why do the big people make young people do bad things? Oh no. Triggered all-boys Catholic school flashback. Must go. Feeling unwell. Article follows… ]


Something untoward has happened to us. The youth have graduated into a harsh climate of injustice, passed from the womb of university into triage, onto the fetid floor of an internment camp, an internment camp that will take most of us months, a year, maybe years to escape.

Unpaid internships are illegal. The Institute for Public Policy Research says so. Profitable organisations that hire unpaid interns seem to think that what they are doing is okay, so long as both parties agree no payment will be received. The lawful reality is that Minimum Wage legislation states it is illegal even if some shake-o-the-hands occurs, and even if the position boasts “Expenses paid! Your lunch free! Your bicycle wheels funded!”

A degree is not enough anymore. Are you young? Are you on the Earth? How many times have you heard those words? A degree is not enough anymore. We have worked for three, four, possibly more years, on the advice of our school teachers and parents who specifically parroted each other when they cawed “Get a degree. Get a job. A degree’s the man. A job’s the plan.” So let’s do it. Three, four, more, years and a saunter round Europe with a backpack of debt, eating our overdraft(s) out of plastic containers with the salt piled on to cover up the bitter taste and make us want to drink more (not difficult).

I applied for a job as Media Development Officer at the University of Sheffield, a position involving teaching students the technical and legal aspects, etc of running the student paper. A student paper I spent 3 years getting to know in various aspects. A couple of other people I knew applied at the same time, and these people alone were talented enough to blow me right out of the pool. Despite spending 3 years working on various parts of the student media and getting to know it a little bit here and there, I did not even get to the interview stage. I don’t know if any of my more experienced friends did either. Mary Anne Hobbs got the job. BBC Radio 1 DJ. 14 years experience. Of course Mary Anne Hobbs would get the job. This is fair enough. I’m only demonstrating that these are the kind of people we, the youth, are up against in the job stakes, not counting the 69 other applicants just recently graduated. Mary Anne had no want of experience; she was working hard while we were still fucking around with our power rangers.

So now they say a degree is not enough. Get over the shock, they say. Deal with it. Okay, okay, so what’s the plan, what’s the man? An internship, I think you’ll find Johnny. Will you get paid? Heavens to Barclays, you certainly will not. But think of that lovely CV bolster you’ll get for two or three months work with the big men.

Pardon me, but three, four, more, years ago that is exactly what you said about a degree. The youth have no guarantee of a job, internship or not. Perhaps once the months of unpaid work rack up we might stand on a level playing field. But right now the playing field is unlevel and all the men with baseball bats are wearing suits with name tags that read “Hello, my name is BONEFUCKER.”

Here comes the problem. It is one that is dealt with elsewhere more eloquently and more righteously than it is on these shores. That is the following: for want of experience, we cannot hope to get experience. The big companies and publications know this, the savy rascals, and they have cornered the job market – sorry – the non-job market. They are the guards who spit on the interned. The ones that man the watchtowers, that shine the spotlight on us in ‘internviews’ and tell us to dress up nice and dance. Pretty, oh so pretty. They cornered the non-job market the same way they cornered the gap-year market, so now we end up paying recruitment agencies stupid amounts in fees to go and work or volunteer abroad. (When did we start having to pay fees in order to volunteer? Is that something that always happened?)

But what now? It is quickly becoming the case that some internships are demanding previous experience as an intern in similar environments when considering your application. So the Catch-22 became a Catch-222. And it so continues ad absurdum: for want of money, we cannot hope to get an internship, for want of an internship we cannot hope to get another internship, for want of our second internship we cannot hope to get experience, for want of experience we cannot hope to get experience, for want of experience we cannot hope to get money. The Catch-22,222.

The graduating climate is shafting the less well-off, no matter how clever, skilful or qualified they are. It’s not all champagne and Egyptians. Those graduating without a grand in their back-burner (quite a lot of us considering we are all in bloody debt) can’t afford to work for nothing. Nor should we.

The big dogs are particularly shaft-happy in the media. The Telegraph reported the above story about how unpaid internships are illegal. The next day they were advertising for the position of an unpaid intern to work alongside their design team for Telegraph magazine in London for four months. (“Your bike wheels pumped! Teabags on expenses!”). Oh, Telegraph, what are you like.

The climate goes beyond producing a blistering tundra with only internships in sight. The attitude that young people should be prepared to work for sweet Foxtrot Alpha has infected the freelance market. It has infected the film industry. It has infected marketing, banking, accountancy. It has infected law and it has infected the government – the two institutions we would like to hope to stand up for what is lawful do nothing but get on board the Great Rip-off Zeppelin. But wait, surely there is a body that will stand up for young people – the student unions! The National Union of Students even! The same student unions that proudly boasted “not for profit, just for students” while they over-charged for their Coca-Cola and their “University of Woooo!” hoodies? The same student unions that stood up so ineffectively against top-up fees? Admittedly not for lack of trying, the poor buggers. The Union officers have become ineffectual. Maybe it’s because, as a friend put it, most of them are career politicians, they want a job with one of the main political parties at the end of their time in “power”. What use is it ruffling the feathers of their superiors? They do not want a premature experience of the whip, something that would leave them all Tuckered out.

Especially when they are getting paid. These people, who are supposed to represent the young unpaid adults of the UK, are the only ones getting paid for their year-long internship. “It would look silly if we complained!” They are undeniably career politicians, born holding a briefcase. Inside the briefcase is a knife. It is for stabbing their way up the greasy, fleshy pole.

Observe the cynicism. We are young people. We shouldn’t be thinking things like this, should we? Of all the people in the world you would expect to have some idealism, some positivism left, surely it would be the youth. But no. This is it. Something untoward has happened to us. And now it is time to play the game. We all like playing games, don’t we? Clearly. This is the best one. The global interactive storytelling experience. 101% on Metacritic.

The Blame Game.

A month ago I got an email from a gaming website asking me for permission to republish an article. It was not a small website. I am certain it classifies as a profitable organisation. Yet when I asked if I got any money for it I was told it would just be the byline and a link to the original host – Resolution Magazine (a voluntary, for-the-love, website, where no-one gets paid). I took it. I took the byline. Where is the culprit?

It is me.

This is the most damning, the most tragic, heart-achingly idiotic thing about the entire unpaid internship/unpaid work market. It is our fault. We are taking the internships. We are taking the bylines. In our fever for recognition and our ambition to cut off the competition we are encouraging the practice, we are perpetuating that harsh climate – we are the Kapos to our own internment.

I loathe myself every time I think of the article I sold for nothing but – what? – prestige? Did I even get that? A line on a CV.

We cannot eat lines on a CV. We cannot pay the man or woman behind the counter at GAME with references. How far has it come that we have sidled up to the big publications, companies and organisations in order to screw over our fellow youth? When did the definition of ‘Mercenary’ read “someone who is willing to work for no remuneration”?

There is the problem. Now, I have a radical solution. Unpaid interns in the UK – Sue. Your. Employer. Or take them to an employment tribunal, rather. It’s been done before, successfully.

Oh wait. Lawyer’s fees. I forgot about those. Maybe you can recruit someone to represent you, on a no-win-no-fee basis? Oh, just recruit an intern on a no-fee-no-fee basis.

What they are doing is illegal. It is also not fair. And only some young people seem to be able to see it. Is it round? Is it square? What shape is this ‘not fair’? The government seems to be doing tits-all to get something done about it. The unions seem to be doing double-tits-all. The obvious way you can stop employers from taking advantage of young workers is to hit them where it hurts – their accounts departments. That delicate area is precisely the greedy appendage that is encouraging them to hire unpaid interns in the first place (no matter how wealthy they are). But even this COA is only open to those with cash. If anyone can find a way of taking this up without paying a lot – there are ways – then I suggest you go for it.

Think such a reactionary idea will only result in no internships for anyone? You think that because of the recession these big companies can’t afford to pay one more person the minimum wage? Get a grip (“Handlebar grips paid for you! Breaks oiled!”). They can afford it. And if they can’t, they are going to have to find a way to afford it. Because unpaid labour for a profitable company is unacceptable. And once they see that they are vulnerable to lawsuits they will have to start to offer paid intern positions. They won’t close up. They won’t stop offering internships. They need the youth, badly. We are the future. They need our ideas, our skills and our tea. If they do not comply, they will meet the future on their way down. And something untoward will happen to them.


Filed under Damn youse, Rejection

26 responses to “The Internment of Youth

  1. Jen

    Excellent post.
    Sucks though doesn’t it? :/

  2. Keir

    Top-knotch article Brendan.

    You’ve probably checked out every site going but “gorkanapr” is a little-known one I stumbled upon the other day.

    There’s a lot of trade magazine positions and they seem willing to hire. Luckily, it’s not an agency but direct applications that I haven’t really seen on other sites.

    Good luck soldier – hope this helps

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  5. Richard J

    banking, accountancy, law

    All of these sectors invest huge amounts of money in training their graduate induction. (c. £100k-£200k per trainee) – funnily enough, they all also actually pay their interns, as do most industries, IIRC. Media and politics are very much outliers on this, it has to to be said.

  6. yangchu

    An excellent and entertaining rant. As someone very much in a similar position, I understand completely. I disagree that it is “our fault”, though I see that these unpaid internships wouldn’t exist without a plentiful supply of desperate graduates to fill them.

    And that’s the thing: we are desperate, because up until now I have heard of no viable alternative other than sucking it up and working for free. Also, from the way you gave permission to republish that article, despite what you went on to write, I think you believe the same thing – or, at least, you once did.

    I should state right now, I will not be attempting to sue my previous employers. I’m going to be completely honest, I got the internships I did through the people I know. To then start legal action against those companies, I think, would be seriously damaging to my relationships with those people – and, I believe, to my future prospects with those companies or similar companies within those industries.

    I won’t take that risk. I wonder how many will.

  7. Ansob

    As someone who graduated in 2009 and still hasn’t gotten a single interview despite sending out about 20 CVs a week, I sympathise.

    Look at it this way: at least you’re not suck in a country where having a foreign degree makes you radioactive as far as employers are concerned, meaning you can’t even get a minimum wage job, meaning you can’t move to a country that isn’t incredibly xenophobic and get an unpaid internship so you can get experience to get an unpaid internship so you can get experience to get a job. :(

    • Aw well…I kinda felt like this a couple of months ago after an unpaid internship (at least I got funding from an academic funding thingy which I used to pay the rent yay)

      It’s pretty much the same thing all over the world I think.
      I even understand if small publications, magazines or non-profit businesses don’t pay their interns (at least if you can see that they can’t even pay their employees well) as long as you get some valuable experience or an opportunity to do paid work for them later on.

      In my case, the only thing that qualified my office-drone internship in a big German, state-funded NGO was being an intern at a big German, state funded NGO. Meaning: after 3 costly months I could say that I’m REALLY good at stapling and organizing gift bags for visiting VIPs.

      Another intern then told me that this organization rarely (if ever) hires its former interns.
      Why should they? They don’t have the needed skills and they don’t teach them.

      My boss later explained me that it doesn’t even make sense to hire interns for short terms and that they will replace the 3 month internships with 12 months internships with minimum pay that will allow you to live just above homeless level (if your parents help you out).

      • If that’s what your boss has planned then that’d be much better. But too many places will just employ you for three months, tell you to sling your big floppy hook, and then hire the next batch of young folk for another 3 month stint.


  8. The culprit was also me. More than once.

    I don’t know.

    From my perspective: it was never a job hunt. I had some ideas, I wrote them down. I don’t know why. Just to contribute. For practice. For the the sake of doing something creative. Over a few days, it was seen by probably forty people, read through by maybe half that. Then it effectively disappeared, sucked down into the inky darkness of the Deep Internet. Until it was found and taken to a busy place, where it was read by thousands. Those ideas, which had no purpose but to be communicated, were communicated more widely than I ever hoped, and hundreds of people thought about what I said. And in the morning I got up and went to my unrelated office job and my life was not improved in any quantifiable way, but perhaps I felt a little less unloved.

    From their perspective: they filled the ravenous feed-trough with the work of some guy who didn’t have the self-confidence or principled conviction to refuse, and used it to make money for themselves. Jerks.

  9. Reading this article was like reading my own diary aloud. That is, if I were the sort of person who kept a diary.

    I have watched as 80% of my journalism classmates take unpaid internships and scrape by in volunteer positions in a desperate bid to “build a portfolio.”

    But that portfolio doesn’t seem to be offering us much.

    I’m in Canada, and must do some research to see if unpaid internships are illegal here to. I have a sneaking suspicion . . .

    • A portfolio of work can certainly help, I’m told. But then I’m also told networking is important. I asked if Twitter counted. They told me to stop faffing around. Trying harder, that’s a common one (possibly justified).

  10. Grizz

    It’s pretty disheartening to read something like this, but I knew it’d be the case all along, before I’d even considered coming to university.

    I guess as long as I’m under no illusions that there’ll be a highly-paid graduate job once I get my degree, I can’t be TOO disappointed, right?

    Somehow I don’t think writing cynical articles gets much food on the table. Shame I’m not interested in anything else.

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  13. RagingLion

    Improving the situation is ultimately screwed over by the inertia of game theory: if you don’t offer yourself out for free (and even try to campaign to your peers not to) then there with always be someone who will go “thank you very much” and take the internship. It will probably need legislative change or lawsuits that set precedents to change things.

  14. Christian

    Hi Brendan,

    I just stumbled onto your blog (through Gillen I think) and I must say it alleviates my growing apathy at our current situation. The thing that pisses me off the most is the people I went to school with who were lacking in creativity and went into trade apprenticeships are now earning good money, I know guys who did a degree in construction and rocked straight into a 35k p/a role and when I go to study at the library, who am I surrounded by? Yep damn accountancy / business and law students. Now don’t get me wrong I have nothing personal against these individuals and wish them all the best in their prospective futures, but it is beyond frustrating that society seems to actively encourage those without an appreciation of art/culture. As David Mitchell commented on 10 c clock live the other week, we are creating a society of bankers and lawyers. BANKERS and LAWYERS….Nobody needs me to comment on the irony. I will be graduating in June BA Literature and have tried contacting companies and organisations within publishing but is seems to be a hermetically sealed organism with great contempt for anyone not already part of the ‘family’.

    • I can totally support anyone’s decision to go into any of these fields. If banking suits you – good stuff. If electronics is what you wanna get into – go for it. If an arts degree is your thing – that’s grand.

      But I get what you’re saying. That’s why we should determine, out of all of these routes, which results in the highest earnings on average. So if young people do have to pay (futuredebt) for an education or training, they pay an amount that is appropriate to their given subject.

      For instance, £9000 a year for an arts degree would be stupidly, ridiculously steep. But I could easily see many universities pricing them this high. Shit, it’s even steep for a degree that would get you a better paying job. It’s just plain fucking extortionate.

  15. T J Farrenden

    Thanks for making me feel less alone. Less alone in a situational-what th Faq sort of turd-stream have i been sold down-sort of way. I hate complaining about ‘our generations problems’ whilst living in a relatively decadent society but I’m sick of living so far down th fastfood chain compared to these managers and politicians (and bankers and solicitors indeed) thanks apparently to a ‘decade lottery’.
    Sorry you were born too late, go and work at Burger King.
    ‘but..i went to university for four years and have a page long list of voluntary work ..font size 12!’ …oh.. well have you considered an MA? or self-funded voluntary work in South America? Las Iguanas has no positions for anyone who hasn’t paid through th nose and out th back of th head for personal growth.

    i only wanted to clean th fuggin toilets.

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