The Perils of the Prestige Economy

I have a new interview with the website PolicyMic on what I call the prestige economy.

The interview touches on a number of subjects – unpaid internships, the rising price of higher education, inequality and immobility, media, and geography of industry – and is worth checking out if you’re a fan of my work. (Or if you’re not.) The interviewer, Sam Bakkila, asked fantastic questions and contributed some great insights.

Here is an excerpt, on success in the prestige economy:

The first thing to realize is that success does not matter. This is true in two ways.

Success does not matter because, in a prestige economy, success has nothing to do with employability. Achievements are irrelevant in a system that rewards money over merit, brand over skill. You can do everything right and the door will not open unless you hold it open with money. That is the way the prestige economy is designed. That is why we now require years of unpaid internships and exorbitant advanced degrees. But the irony of the prestige economy is that even those who can pay to play cannot find a job that pays them.

Prestige rewards prestige, but older prestige has realized that younger prestige will work for more prestige — that is, for free. Even the winners are losing.

Second, prestige is success decreed by institutions. Success decreed by institutions means nothing when institutions are rotting. If you take an unpaid internship at a prestigious organization, you are banking that the prestige imparted by this affiliation will help you later. There is a good chance it will not. Institutions that use unpaid labor are hastening their own demise. They are sinking in quality and destroying their own reputations, which is what they bank on to hire unpaid labor in the first place.

Using short-term unpaid labor is a strategy of desperation. Take the long view — where are these companies headed? What will it mean to say you worked there in a few years? Is it worth your unpaid time?…

If you grew up in the prestige economy, you have been trained to see life as a competition. But if you are young, you are losing no matter what. You will have better luck in the long run by rearranging the social order, rebuilding broken institutions, and broadening opportunity for all.

Read the full article, Why You Should Never Have Taken That Prestigious Internship, on PolicyMic.

And here is Eric Garland’s entertaining take:

“Always set on outdoing herself, my colleague Sarah Kendzior is hacking the culture of fancy degrees and “prestigious” unpaid internships to bits, putting the bits in a 55 gallon drum, pouring gasoline in the drum, lighting the whole thing on fire – then firing nukes at everything within a 100 mile…”

(Death of the Prestige Economy)

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34 Responses to The Perils of the Prestige Economy

  1. Erstwhile Anthropologist says:

    It is not just the prestige economy, it is the *sociopath* economy: because these are the personality traits/disposition best suited to the current neoliberal morass. Getting ahead not via merit, but via exploitation of structural inequalities to one’s advantage, by any means necessary, regardless of ethics or morality or legality, because getting ahead is all that matters. “Leave your ‘privilege’ critique at home if you want to be friends”, as one particularly skilled exploiter of the current neoliberal inequality writes, because all that matters is ‘winning’ (v. social justice or equality, which such ‘winners’ label “tired 80’s liberalism”) because you “just have to be responsible for yourself”.

    Thank you, Saran, for reminding us why such ‘ethics’ are so socially ruinous, and such utter bunk.

  2. Erstwhile Anthropologist says:

    Sarah, I think this recent tweet of yours resonates with my thoughts above:
    “We like to dress up corruption as ideology (“neoliberalism” etc). But it’s callousness, incompetence, indifference, deceit. An anti-ideology.”

    I think naming current practices as sociopathic, since they are, alerts people to precisely what is wrong with the current (economic) status quo, highlighting the deceit, privilege, corruption, oppression, exploitation which make ‘success’ possible. Sociopathic: is this really what people want to be, the values/personality traits to be encouraged and embraced?

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