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Internships are seen as the passport to interesting and dynamic careers, but how many get turned away at the border because they don’t fit the ‘right’ profile?

Internships are seen as the passport to interesting and dynamic careers, but how many get turned away at the border because they don’t fit the ‘right’ profile?

This week with the publication of Ross Perlin’s ‘Intern Nation’ and Wednesday’s planned ‘Day without interns’ protest outside Westminster the rights and status of graduates looking to get a foot on the career ladder is in the spotlight.  The internship system of largely unregulated, unpaid work placements is being attacked for boosting social immobility and inhibiting the career development of all but the few with the freedom, finance or connections to benefit.  I have no doubt that the time has come to review intern rights and wrongs, but in the process is it time to have a bigger conversation about how we all navigate our professional lives in changing times and how we can best support each other to reach our potential.

I’m not your typical intern, for one thing I’m older than most.  I’m in the process of changing career, hopefully taking my experience as a designer into new places where I can use my skills for social good and create a sustainable future for myself.   For another thing, here at the RSA I am paid, which is important not only for my survival, but for my self-respect.  I returned to education as a mature student, as did most of my peers on the MA Design for Development at Kingston University, all of whom brought a diversity of professional, cultural and life experience to the table.

Whilst the internship debate quite rightly advocates for the rights of the young and inexperienced, the internship culture itself now dominates access to many creative professions.  With that comes the implicit expectation of youth, unfettered responsibility, and freedom from personal and financial obligations; and out goes opportunity for ‘people of all ages and backgrounds’ (e.g. mature students, career changers and parents).  It follows that people whose lifestyles can adapt easily to unpaid work (plus paid second jobs) can later adapt to the exacting working practices that uphold the status quo.  Companies describing themselves as ‘young’ do so as if describing a virtue, but with that assertion comes a whole host of other assumptions that discriminate not just against people of different ages, but people’s whose lifestyle for many other reasons does not match the  ‘youthful’ profile.

The way we work is changing; few of us can expect jobs or careers for life.  We need to adapt to become more flexible  in not just how we manage our careers, but how we plan for a future where the good these changes bring can be embraced by all.  By focussing on the internship issue alone, are we perhaps missing an opportunity to throw open the debate and re-evaluate the professional landscape as a whole?

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