The intern. Many of us have been there. The admin, the tea making, the filing, the emailing, the envelop stuffing, the phone calling, the diary sorting; being the newby, the low paid (or even unpaid,) the bottom of the heap, the errand boy. And oh, those reams of self justification: ‘it’s all good experience’; ‘at least I’m getting a feel for the industry’; ‘I’m definitely learning new things’; ‘this might (just possibly) lead to a job’; at least it will look good on the CV (with a bit of spinning no doubt)’; or, the scariest one of all, ‘well, if I can’t get a ‘real’ job, why not intern?’

This might sound familiar; but it certainly doesn’t sound anything like national service. Indeed, it would be a stretch to link the office intern with the gun-carrying military man intent on keeping the world a safer place. For starters, national service was very much a product of its time. Arising out of military conscription pre and during World War Two, national service aimed to supplement the professional armed forces. These men lived in a world of hot and cold wars. Their country celebrated Empire Day, they sang the national anthem before concerts or plays, and their politicians were planning and controlling affairs through nationalisation, rationing and conscription.

This is all a far cry from the world of the modern intern where pluralism, free-markets and individualism reign supreme. Unlike national service, the intern is not embroiled in office duties as a means to civic participation and patriotism: they are not shipped around the globe to uphold the glorious British Empire, nor are they forced through rigorous physical training and communal living (although the latter is offered by Internship UK when they match interns with placements.) It would be unfair to describe the interning experience as ‘like a nervous breakdown,’ a personification of national service used by one ex-serviceman. Moreover, those that served were not bared due to socio-economic factors; which cannot be said for unpaid internships, which are dominated by the middle. To claim a connection between national service and internships appears, at worst, facetious and unthinking to those that served our country and, at best, totally tenuous.

But it is worth a shot all the same. For one thing, both issues are topical. There have been outcries over the scandal of unpaid internships, with Hazel Blears MP recently forwarding a motion to outlaw their advertisement. Internships have become central to the experiences of most students and graduates. Go to Milkround and their first section is ‘jobs & internships’—today, in order to get the former, you often need the latter. And finally, national service is experiencing a quasi-Renaissance: in the name of the ‘Big Society,’ David Cameron’s National Citizen Service is styled ‘in the same spirit’ as the old military service. Beneath all this, a comparative approach throws light on both internships and national service which is worth consideration.

And the exercise is not totally tenuous because national service has evolved. Although it officially ended in Britain in 1962/3, since then a number of variants have sprung into existence. Internationally speaking, there are multiple contemporary forms of national service in countries such as the Scandinavian states, Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Russia, Singapore and Switzerland. Here, although the military emphasis is often central, national service is also used to include broader elements of public service. These include economic regeneration at local and regional levels, vocational and technical skills learning, services designed to promote youth employment, the delivery of social welfare provisions and a commitment to voluntary work.

A similar type of evolution has occurred in Britain. There exists (and has existed) a plethora of government schemes alluding to some form of national service, with an increasing emphasis on volunteerism. From Cameron’s National Citizen Service to the alternative International

Citizen Service; to Blair’s support for voluntary work and the Third Sector, to the coordination of employment and training offered through the Manpower Service Commission under Edward Heath’s Conservatives. To throw internships into the matrix is, in this sense, not such a big step—if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor.

Thus to the first point of comparison: economics. The aim of national service, amongst other things, was to address short-term imbalances in the labour market and reduce the defence budget through conscripts. Jump to internships, and they too offer the chance of reduced fiscal output. Owen Jones’ book Chavs sites the stat that parliamentary interns provide 18,000 hours of free labour a week, saving MPs £5 million a year in labour costs. The government has responded but some interns still work for free, for expenses only or at a rate much smaller than fellow co-workers. The logic is impeccable for companies using interns: financial savings guaranteed.

Low pay is thus endemic in interning—as it was, funnily enough, in national service. Many national servicemen resented their conscription for this reason alone. In 1948, the net earning per week, for national service, was 28 shillings but this compared poorly to the £8 shillings and 6 pence for average pay in 1951. National service pay increased to 38 shillings in 1960 but, again, this fell well short of the average pay, which in 1961 was £15 and 10 shillings. For the modern intern, their ‘pay-package’ (if they are lucky to receive one) hardly accredits the title. Hence why so many interns come from the ranks of the eager middle-classes, so reliant on their parents.

The comparative picture, however, is not all negative. For the modern intern, their stint on low pay is a means to an end: a way of gaining experience and knowledge of a particular industry. It’s a form of ‘training on the job,’ which is not that different to national service. Of course, the ‘endless drills, gruelling inspections, physical training, rifle practice, polishing boots and equipment,’ as described by Lance Corporal Adrian Tennant Cooper of the Royal Engineers, does not usually come under the intern’s remit. But national service offered training beyond this physically demanding regime. There were opportunities for specialist training in subjects like communications and engineering, for learning a new language (particularly Russian) or for improving clerical and administrative skills. The focus on training, acquiring skills and gaining experience offers another parallel between national service and modern interning, which may sustain the comparison.

Furthermore, the national service sought to instil the personal qualities of independence, self-reliance, personal responsibility and maturity. It sought to develop teamwork and group skills and to encourage the application of practical solutions to practical problems. The aims and benefits associated with interning lay stress on confidence building, teamwork skills, practical experience and the personal development from student to worker. The national service’s explicit stress on duty and discipline may be lacking in the objectives of interning but the others are not miles apart.

Finally, let’s turn to the issue of conscription, which by definition is compulsory. Simply put, eligible citizens between the ages of 17 and 21 (according to the National Service Act of 1947) had to enrol for an 18 month period. On completion, men would enter the Reserve for around four years. There were the possibilities of exemption for conscientious objectors and those in essential services, such as the merchant navy, farming and coal mining; but, the long and the short of it was compulsory service.

Not so for interns, I hear you say, yet the notion of compulsion exists here in more muted forms. In the fields of law, politics, media, fashion and even international aid and development, ‘prior experience’ is a prerequisite. I was even asked in an interview for a political internship what my previous experience had been—naturally, of course, one is expected to have experience prior to seeking experience. But, more worryingly, a recent survey of 1,500 students and graduates showed that two-thirds thought it necessary to work for free because of the recession. The dire state of the job market, especially for youth employment, often makes interning a compulsion rather than a luxury. Add this to demands from professionals for experienced candidates and interning ceases to be a simple matter of free choice.

So there may indeed be grounds for arguing that interning constitutes a new form of national service, fit for the twenty-first century. If the argument has not convinced you, no worries; just see this comparative enterprise as a voice in the chorus of angry people demanding change to the system of interning, especially that of unfair pay. Alternatively, if you happen to be an intern as you read, take solace in the fact that you form part of a proud lineage of servitude to Queen and Country—please, keep your eyes ahead and continue on your march.