THE BLOG
26/03/2015 07:14 GMT | Updated 25/05/2015 06:59 BST

Unpaid Internships and the Myth of Meritocracy

One of the most profitable movie studios in the US recently auctioned off an unpaid internship for $25,000. The winner of this auction received the apparently exciting opportunity to work nine-to-five for nothing. On the surface, this isn't a smart purchase. After all, they could have volunteered at a homeless shelter - which is surely more rewarding than making tea for some fat cat film executive - and saved twenty-five grand. This individual, however, wasn't simply paying to be a servant. They were paying for a position in one of the most prestigious institutions in Hollywood. This, of course, is of immeasurable value.

The Weinstein Company's ludicrous $25,000 price tag for a tea-boy position is emblematic of a wider problem in our supposedly meritocratic society: the privileged have an unfair advantage in competitive fields. Unpaid internships are unsurprisingly widespread, with an estimated one in three graduate interns working for nothing. These unpaid internships benefit two sectors of our society: exploitative companies who effortlessly obviate basic worker's rights and the uber-privileged who can afford to work for indefinite periods with no pay.

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission estimate that 74% of Britons believe that young people in their family would be unable to work for a prolonged period for free. Thus roughly a quarter of the most affluent graduates in our society - who, lest we forget, already have certain advantages - are able to afford a proverbial foot-in-the-door, while three quarters of graduates would hypothetically struggle to find a place in sought-after companies.

By excluding three quarters of graduates from attaining coveted positions, unpaid internships prevent the most able candidates from attaining higher positions simply because they can't afford to compete. This inevitably has damaging results not only for individual aspirations, but for each and every profession.

Consider, for example, the legal profession in the 1950s. Due to oppressive measures preventing women from achieving positions of power, males dominated the courtroom. Since alleviating some of the injustices that prohibited women from attaining powerful positions - through legislative measures that promoted social mobility - the legal profession has vastly improved. Allowing women to compete with men for the best legal positions has made the competition fiercer and thus has had a profoundly beneficial effect on the profession. We can apply the same logic to every sector of our society. The more level the playing field, the greater improvements to the profession and, by extension, our society as a whole.

Thankfully, unpaid internships are prohibited from discriminating on grounds of gender, sexuality, religion or race. They are, however, allowed to discriminate in terms of class. Graduates from working or indeed middle class backgrounds are less likely to be able to afford the so-called luxury of six months unpaid employment. Jobs in competitive fields are invariably based in London - one of the most expensive cities in the world - where rent, travel and leisure are all incredibly expensive. A six month unpaid internship in London could cost a graduate upwards of £5,000. Obviously most working class graduates - and indeed many middle class graduates - can't afford such a extortionate price. These individuals are therefore unable to compete and an unfair advantage is awarded to the most privileged.

From a young age, we are told that if we work hard, if we attain certain qualifications and if we remain ambitious, we are likely to succeed in our chosen field. This is the essence of a supposedly meritocratic society - rewarding hard work, capability and ambition. How meritocratic is our society, however, when coveted positions are perpetually offered only to those who can afford them?

A proper meritocratic society would offer everyone the opportunity to secure the most coveted jobs in their field regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexuality and, of course, class. This would simultaneously promote social mobility and ensure that the most capable candidates are able enhance their chosen profession. To perpetuate proper meritocratic standards, we should promote measures that ensure that desired jobs are offered to candidates based on their effort and ability, not their bank accounts.