‘Permaterns’ And the Waning of Civil Society

by Mark Gordon

This piece originally appeared at Aleteia

While the United States continues to struggle toward economic recovery, the impact of the sluggish job market on recent college graduates is especially troubling. Last year, the Associated Press estimated that more than half of college graduates aged 25 and under were either unemployed or underemployed, and that many of those who did have full-time work were not employed in the professional fields for which they studied.

One dimension of this disturbing trend was illustrated in a recent story published in The Washingtonian, a popular magazine in the Washington, D.C. metro area. Titled “The Age of the Permanent Intern,” the article examines the popular practice of recruiting recent college graduates for unpaid or low-paid ‘internships’ with no certain path into genuine professional employment. The article begins by looking at the situation of ‘Kate’, a 2011 Ivy League graduate who has worked three unpaid internships during her 18 months in Washington but supports herself by waiting tables at night.

According to the story, “Kate, who often works more than 60 hours a week, is in a class of workers who don’t show up in government reports. She’s one of the ‘permaterns’ – those perpetual interns, mostly in their twenties – who have been battered by the winds of the recession and are holding out hope that the conventional career wisdom that an internship leads to a job isn’t folklore from a bygone era – like the 1990s.”

The practice extends well beyond Washington, D.C. According a story last year in the New York Times, the US Department of Labor is now beginning to turn its attention to the problem, especially in for-profit firms like the media and lobbying companies that hired ‘Kate’. Except in very specific circumstances – as an exchange for college credits, for instance – it is illegal for for-profit companies to benefit from the labor of interns without paying them at least the minimum wage. Moreover, most interns are not officially employed, and therefore not protected by laws and regulations pertaining to employee discrimination. Different standards apply for non-profits, where unpaid internships have been a part of the landscape for a long time.

Internships – both paid and unpaid – are a big part of the college experience at some institutions of higher learning, where young people work either full or part-time at for-profit or non-profit enterprises in exchange for college credits and real-world experience. Some universities even require the completion of an internship in a student’s major field. Unfortunately, many employers have discovered that they can extend their internship programs to graduates, thereby gaining free or cheap labor without the sorts of reciprocal agreements with colleges and universities that protect students from exploitation.

Although internships are often conflated with apprenticeships, the two have very different origins. In the guild system of the Middle Ages, an apprentice was taken on by a master craftsman for a period of up to nine years. The apprentice was unpaid, but did receive room and board, as well as extensive training in the trade. After the period of time prescribed by the guild of the trade, the apprentice was then promoted to journeyman. He would earn wages while working for his master, as well as additional training, all in view of becoming a master himself and setting up his own shop or practice. The medieval model was built on reciprocal commitments between masters, their apprentices and journeymen, and the guild itself, for which they all nominally worked. Echoes of those commitments can be found in the ways in which people today become licensed plumbers and electricians, as well as in many of the creative professions, and in the college internship experience itself.

The new practice of unpaid internships for college graduates doesn’t fit this model at all, however, in which there is typically no path to licensure or professional employment. There is no formal training in the field beyond exposure to the firm’s place of business and the tasks assigned to interns. (Those tasks, incidentally, aren’t always menial. In some cases, interns do jobs for which others in the firm are paid full salaries.) And apart from the government, there is no broader authority that regulates standards and practices, especially not within the firm’s field itself. In short, it is difficult to see this practice as anything but a novel form of exploitation by employers.

One doesn’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find a time when things were different, however. In the Washingtonian article, Ross Perlin, the 29 year-old author of Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, notes that “before the internship boom, in the 1950s and ’60s, the expectation was that the government, companies, and universities would invest in young people and that they, in turn, would pay the investment back by becoming taxpayers and active members of society.” That’s no longer the case, says Perlin. “There has been a cultural shift toward something more sinister – that you have to invest in yourself and we are each out there on our own. There is no idea of a social investment in our promising young people. Increasingly, you invest in your own human capital or your family does. There is no sense of shared responsibility.”

So, what happened? Why do so many companies feel free to make an end-run around the kinds of investments in young people that were once the hallmark of American business? It is tempting to chalk this phenomenon up to the supposed American penchant for ‘rugged individualism’. But that term – which is rooted in Social Darwinism and dates to a 1928 speech by Herbert Hoover – belongs more to the archive of cultural mythology or Objectivist fiction than to authentic sociological and historical analysis. With the exception of the occasional pioneering family, Americans were never really rugged individualists (at least not in the way that term is typically deployed). Life – even in rural America – was historically centered on local communities, including communities of faith. That’s certainly what Alexis de Tocqueville discovered and wrote about in Democracy in America: a nation of small towns full of citizens energetically and collectively engaged in self-government, each participating in an intricate network of voluntary associations, from churches and small businesses to local governments and farm associations. This network of institutions used to be called ‘civil society’, and it has nothing to do with the mythology of ‘rugged individualism’.

Unfortunately, civil society has been on the wane for the better part of a century, squeezed out by the state, on the one hand, and the market, on the other. Worse, the state and big business are often in collusion, which only leads to a further erosion of those mediating social institutions, including the Church, that make up civil society. As Robert Nisbet wrote in his landmark 1953 classic, “The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom, “it has been the fate of these external institutions and relationships to suffer almost continuous attrition during the capitalist age. First the guild, the nucleated village, and the landed estate underwent destruction. For a long time, however, the family, local community, tangible property, and class remained as powerful, though external, supports of the economic system which the rationalists saw merely as the outcome of man’s fixed instincts and reason. But, in more recent decades … even these associations have become steadily weaker as centers of security and allegiance. Modern rationalization and impersonalization of the economic world are but the other side of  … the ‘decline of custom’ and which we may see as the dislocation of certain types of social membership … and in this whole process the directive role of the political State becomes ever greater.”

What Nisbet’s insight alerts us to is a truth highlighted by Pope Benedict XVI, when he wrote, “My predecessor John Paul II drew attention to this question in Centesimus Annus, when he spoke of the need for a system with three subjects: the market, the State and civil society. He saw civil society as the most natural setting for an economy of gratuitousness and fraternity, but did not mean to deny it a place in the other two settings … The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society” (Caritas in Veritate, 38, 39).

The ‘permatern’ phenomenon is a minor bellwether indicating a radical attenuation of the American concept of community. The situation has been made worse by the rapid disappearance of a gratuitous civil society that operates in the social space between state and market. Both Left and Right share the blame, in my view, because for decades both have offered a deracinated view of the human person as homo economicus – economic man – whose highest value is realized only in relation to either the state or the market.

That is directly at odds with the view of the Catholic Church, which promotes the “integral development” of individuals in all their diverse yet complementary dimensions. That development can only take place, according to the Church, within the context of gratuitous and fraternal communities, beginning with the family, but extending to the wider civil society. This Catholic response to the false ontologies of both Left and Right is coherent and anthropologically consistent. Among other things, it insists that “all work has a threefold moral significance. First, it is a principle way that people exercise the distinctive human capacity for self-expression and self-realization. Second, it is the ordinary way for human beings to fulfill their material needs. Finally, work enables people to contribute to the well-being of the larger community. Work is not only for oneself. It is for one’s family, for the nation, and indeed for the benefit of the entire human family.” (USCCB, “Economic Justice for All,” #97)