I fear something is very, very wrong at the Observer.

Barbara Ellen’s column this weekend (‘Hey intern, get me a coffee and stop whingeing’) was a depressing read indeed.

Although she raged nobly against the injustice of placements being more accessible to well-off graduates (tick!), Ellen appeared to be saying that asking you lot to work for free for up to a year is perfectly reasonable (cross).

Graduate Fog generally likes Ellen’s writing, so I’m giving her the benefit of the doubt and hoping that she’s just badly informed on this subject.

I can’t believe that someone as smart as her – who writes for the most liberal newspaper in the world – could seriously be suggesting that the minimum wage laws that protect everybody else in this country should not apply to graduates.

Ellen’s logic – as is often the way with people who did not pay for their university education (assuming she had one?) – is that she had to work for free when starting out, so why shouldn’t you lot? It’s a rite of passage, and her advice is simply to ‘suck it up.’

As a fellow journalist (albeit a far less famous one!) I can see her point. I did unpaid work experience too, when I was starting out. But I did NOT do it for a year, unpaid. (I worked for about 3 months before I started to be paid).

And – as a graduate of 2000, the last year before tuition fees were introduced – I was not in anywhere near the kind of debt you lot are in.

As I had not paid for my course, I did not have the same expectation that it ‘bought’ me anything. I made my situation work – but under very different economic circumstances to the ones your generation face.

Ellen is right that the work-for-free-first culture is nothing new. But she’s wrong in thinking that makes it okay.

She also fails to consider how tuition fees have changed graduates expectations about life after university. Of course the fact that you’re paying huge sums of money for your qualification impacts the amount of post-sorting, photocopying and coffee-getting you are prepared to do before you start being paid.Owing 15-20k kinda does that to a person.

Ellen also seems unaware that many of the thousands of graduates who are working unpaid are not just running errands for a couple of weeks – and the work-for-free-first culture has become the norm in many industries – not just media.

Graduate Fog has heard countless tales of cash-strapped companies (major ones – who frankly should know better), allowing graduates to work for months on end in jobs that require real responsibility – for no pay whatsoever. That’s right. Nil pounds, zero pence. For months.

Sure, sneaky bosses dangle the idea that it ‘might lead to something in the future’ but will it really – and if so, when? Many employers know full-well how vulnerable graduates are to these tactics. I’ve seen these placements go on and on with – guess what? – no job at the end of them because – oh, look at that – there’s ‘simply no budget’.

So eventually that graduate leaves – and another appears to fill their shoes. Doesn’t Ellen think that taking advantage of young people like this is pretty disgusting? Because I do.

Unpaid work experience is a clear indicator that something is very wrong with the current transition between education and work – that’s the real issue here and one that Ellen fails to consider. A system that expects young people who are already in 15-20k of debt to work for free for a year cannot be right.

The employers say you’re not ‘work ready’ when you come out of uni. The universities say their responsibility is to educate you, not to prepare you for work. Their positions leave a gap between uni and your first paid job – which at the moment you, the graduates, are plugging by working for free.  At a time when job market has never been tougher – and graduates have never been poorer.

‘Spoiled’ and ‘self-pitying’?

‘Penniless’ and ‘rightfully fuming,’ more like.

Graduate Fog looks forward to the day when the bitter battle over unpaid work experience moves on from this nasty, inter-generational squabbling – to become a constructive debate. If we’re ever going to sort out this situation, we need to tackle its root cause.


If you’re doing work experience, Graduate Fog’s advice has always been clear:

1) Don’t whinge. Understand that there are no guarantees – and than in competitive industries like media it is not your human right to be given a job, no matter how many internships you complete. If you choose to pursue a career in these industries, the risk is yours and yours alone.

2) If you do decide to do work experience, make sure it works for you. The most valuable placements are those that give you some responsibility / interesting jobs to do – and are for a well-respected company. If none of these boxes are ticked, your time could well be spent doing something more productive.

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