Writer: You Need Either an Unpaid Internship or an Inheritance

A thought-provoking and bracingly honest essay in the literary magazine Hazlitt examines the writer’s experience trying to make it in publishing, her industry of choice.

Alexandra Kimball grew up in Canada, but her account rings true for American upbringings: she details the powerful spell cast by the prevailing meritocratic narrative:

I grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which means I spent my formative years under a comet-adorned poster that said “Reach for the Stars!” Still, I didn’t think my goals were stratospheric. I understood that my life would look nothing like the lives of my rich classmates, who were poised for business, medicine, or law–avenues that required connections and expensive professional degrees. Instead, I’d graduate from university, get an entry-level job at a newspaper or magazine, and “work my way up.”

That allure—the belief that one need only put in her dues in order to claim a career—helps lure students into unaffordable unpaid internships. As this blog has discussed, a Bachelor’s degree is not the relative guarantee of good work that it once was—personal sacrifice and outside help are now, for many students and would-be young professionals, requirements for advancement. As the New York Times reported last year, “nearly 60 percent of 23- to 25-year-olds report receiving some kind of financial assistance from their parents.”

Kimball faced a common financial reality (but, uncommonly, is brave enough to write about it):

There was no way I could do an unpaid internship. Three months of unpaid work would cost at least $4,000; after a B.A. and a Master’s, my student loan debt already totalled $50,000. My monthly payments were $600, and rent in Toronto would be the same–I was avoiding the latter burden for the time being by living with my mother, but she was a receptionist, and couldn’t reasonably support me for much longer.

In the end, Kimball breaks into publishing as a result of an unexpected inheritance from the passing of a relative. That an extraordinary windfall was necessary to make her desired work possible says everything about the exploitative nature of unpaid internships: in industries like media and fashion, young people work for free in order to gain access to fields that will probably pay them very little, if they are hired at all. (In a particularly discouraging moment in her story, Kimball finds out that an editor she looks up to makes only $28,000 a year.)

It is worth noting that, amid all the contention over the value and meaning of HBO’s Girls, the show’s frank depiction of its main characters’ privilege is brutally realistic in this regard. As the New Yorker put it, “With admirable bluntness, ‘Girls’ exposes the financial safety nets that most stories about New York–and many New Yorkers–prefer to leave invisible.”

A job market that requires financial good fortune in order to compete is unfair. That is why the December settlement in favor of the Charlie Rose show’s former unpaid interns is so exciting; hopefully, further victories are won in the similar ongoing lawsuits against Hearst and Fox.

As new precedents are set, new opportunities arise for recovery for illegal internships. If you have been paid improperly or not at all for your work, contact The Harman Firm today.