Lifelong Interns

"Out of work? So what?” – Portraits of Interns for Life

In Germany, just about everyone does internships. Before, during or after the studies, for little or no pay, always in the hope of gaining some work experience and improving prospects on the job market. But “internships are often just veiled unemployment”, says 29-year-old Nikola Richter, who went and wrote a book on the subject. Die Lebenspraktikanten (i.e. “Interns for Life”) is a satirical documentary look inside the occupational twilight zone between eking out a living and exploitation, a look at what is at once an important economic factor and a lifestyle. Nikola Richter talks about her book, the ordeal of getting a steady job, and society’s responsibilities.

When did you come up with the idea of writing a book about the so-called “Generation Internship”?

Well, it wasn’t a clear-cut decision to write about interns: at some point I just started taking notes because I was living that way myself. In time I had a great deal of material and I also collected stories from people in similar situations. Eventually, a point simply came where I started wondering what form to give the whole thing.

Can you recall how many people and personal accounts the characters in your book are based on?

Roughly 50, but some people only come up in a line or two.

Your book can be read as the reader pleases: taking it very seriously, we get terribly upset and even almost annoyed in some passages because we want nothing so much as to seize the characters by the shoulders and shake them into finally doing something about their situation. We get the impression they’re so obsessed with doing something about it that they forget to live. And if we approach the matter with a little more humour, we can almost read the book as satire. Was that intentional?

That switching back and forth between factual reporting and satire, yes, that was a matter of style. I work with irony and exaggerations: for instance, I depict a lousy internship with really nasty workmates. The book is a mixed bag in many respects: it tells fictional stories, but it’s also documentary.

Naturally, one can’t help wondering why your characters don’t revolt, why they don’t just quit bad internships. Your character Giulia is the only one who’s a bit critical: she delves into labour law, wants to start up a political party for interns, but in the end she’s the one with a two-year contract and a good salary in her pocket. Do you think our generation has a great capacity for suffering, that we put our jobs before our personal needs: friendship, relationships, hobbies?

Why don’t people here in Germany rebel? I was at this interns’ rally on the 1st of April at Potsdamer Platz in Berlin: there were 120 people there out of an estimated 500,000 interns in the country. What’s more, the media are currently hyping the topic every which way. So of course you wonder: Why don’t they rebel? I didn’t rebel back then either. And why not? I think people are a little ansi about the generally dismal mood in Germany. You think: Okay, at least I have something, and if I give that up I haven’t got anything left at all. People don’t realize it’s sometimes better to have nothing than something bad. On the other hand, you delude yourself into thinking you’re on the right track because it’s been drummed into you from so early on: do an internship, seize every opportunity, stay flexible, adapt, you’ve got to go where you can get further training. As a result, you readily forget there might be other options. Because after all you want to learn, and the flexibility and everything that goes with it, but then you don’t ask yourself any more: What am I actually doing?
And that good old money is a problem. You’d certainly be better off many a time doing something unpaid if it’s more engrossing, but of course you can’t afford that. So when you’re offered odd jobs instead, you just take them. I wouldn’t call that a capacity for suffering, on the contrary: properly considered, our generation is very ambitious, we want to belong, professionally and socially.

The other thing that struck me about your book is that most of the characters don’t have a good relationship to their parents or, as the case may be, can’t relate to their children’s situation any more; in the most exasperating cases they give old hippie advice on lifestyle and job-hunting. Were you also out to describe the generation gap?

The parents only appear on the fringes, and the relationships are perfectly normal, it seems to me. But I wanted to show that there are always things parents don’t understand. What’s typical, for instance, is this “pressure from higher up”, in other words parents constantly saying: “You’ve got to do this and that, for if you’re good, you’ll make the grade. In our day…”. First of all, that’s not true, of course, and secondly it’s not much help because the situation has become increasingly precarious over the past five years and that has nothing to do with individual skills. But I don’t mean just the parents: there are plenty of people who can’t imagine what it’s like to live without a steady job. Everyone wants a certain measure of security, even in the form of a two-year contract (even that’s growing more and more rare), and one has the feeling things will somehow work out after that. But you can’t get this feeling across because what others tell you carries a lot more weight: all you need to do is go to the employment office, then you’ll get help, some retraining you don’t want at all and won’t get you anywhere, you’ve got to move into a smaller flat and so on, and right away you get the feeling you’re on the social downslide. Interns aren’t used to that, for most of them are privileged, educated people with from relatively well-to-do homes. It’s often the case that after graduating one has less to live on than during one’s studies at university.

On the other hand, I’ve also run into plenty of people who say, “Well, I’ve been working freelance for 30 years now and have never once complained. I have no idea what your problem is.” If you decide of your own accord to live like that, then that’s fine. But not everyone can cope with self-employment and the pressure to be flexible all the time. I wanted to raise the question of how our society deals with that too. No-one can be held personally responsible for the situation, and that poses the question of solidarity as well. In Germany we’ve just seen various groups on strike: the Ver.di people (Germany’s biggest trade union), doctors, the 120 interns, but it’s not as if passersby stopped to express their sympathy and ask how the problem can be solved collectively. For the whole thing involves far more global factors, though the approach in Germany is far more segmented. Unfortunately, there’s no sense of a “single society” that would get people thinking collectively about what can be done to reduce teenage unemployment or create new jobs. The privileged interns get placed somewhere or another, but what’s with the people who have no training and know they won’t land any trainee positions? That’s an enormous social problem we face, and I merely describe the privileged side of it, so to speak.

Interns should learn more than folding envelopes or making coffee. Copyright: PixelQuelle.de

Your book reflects the reality there, too: the politicians are silent on the issue, the people concerned are politically motivated, but without institutional ties – to a party, for example. On the other hand, however, the trade unions, unlike those in France, aren’t inclined to join forces with university and high school students. Is there any hope nevertheless that someone will come and address the issue beyond the current media hype? Has your book, for example, reached the parties?

There’s an association called FairWork that does a great deal of lobbying and has been striving for a couple years now to attain a minimum wage for interns. They work behind the scenes to get the issue on the party agenda. Then there’s the DGB ( i.e. German Federation of Trade Unions), of course, the Agentur für Arbeit (i.e. National Employment Agency), student counselling services – some of them have now caught on too. Wheels are in motion, but I think progress can only come very, very gradually. And it will depend on everyone. As you said, it’s exasperating when someone sticks to a bad internship. And in future I think it’ll still be up to the interns themselves to take a critical look at their situation or have the self-confidence to say no to an internship that’s only about folding envelopes 10 hours a day.

You broach another major issue in your book: the question of offspring in Germany. Instead of taking a position, though, you look at the issue from every angle: there are characters who don’t want children without financial security, and some who simply have children and come to grips with the situation quite well, and then there are those who want to plan everything out step by step but can’t find a suitable partner.

Yes, in my book I try to show various ways of dealing with that. Personally, I find this whole German discussion absurd: these women fabricated by Mr Schirrmacher who are supposed to do everything impeccably, career and family at the same time, and this constant emphasis on family values. Besides, the question of offspring doesn’t concern only women, it concerns men, too. But the issue’s really too big. I actually just wanted to show that this childbearing strike by female academics doesn’t exist: people are indeed thinking about having children. Only they’re putting off the decision so far because young academics can hardly provide for themselves as it is.

You yourself are in a situation like Giulia’s in your book: you’ve got a job and a steady income for two years with your internship at the magazine KulturAustausch, but then you’ll have to return to the job market. How will things work out for you then?

Now as a matter of fact I’m thinking things will work out. Either here or elsewhere. At the moment I’m not afraid of registering for unemployment after this two-year stint or even doing something completely different. I know I don’t want to move again under any circumstances. Naturally, I’ll worry about it when the time comes, but you’ve got to accept the fact that short or long periods of unemployment are part and parcel of career histories these days. Internships are often just veiled unemployment: they simply hold no prospects, even for society as a whole. And the over-50 generation has the same problem. Out of work? So what? After all, we’re not in a poor country, we have finally got to stop seeing everything so pessimistically. Still, we need ideas on fairer ways of sharing work. Maybe part-time schemes, even if they’re more expensive for employers, are part of the answer.

Kerstin Fritzsche
conducted the interview. She is currently training with the Online Editors at the Goethe-Institut – and she doesn’t know either what will happen after “Goethe”.
Translation: Eric Rosencrantz

Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

Any questions about this article? Please write.
online-redaktion@goethe.de
August 2006

An abridged version of this interview first appeared on www.fluter.de on 9 June 2006 under the title “Arbeitslos? So what? Stand up for your rights, Praktikant/in!“. The interview is reused here by kind permission of the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (i.e. Federal Agency for Civic Education) and the agency Redaktion und Alltag GbR.

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