Smart, educated and exploited: how ‘internships’ help lock the young out of jobs
Millennials aren’t choosy. We’d love to work full-time. But trying to start a career, for many, means taking on unpaid ‘internships’
By Michael Newton
Jul 8 2017
I have this social dread when meeting new people. A nervousness that keeps me on edge during the early introductions and the vocal sparring that takes place after shaking hands and saying each other’s names. It’s not an aversion to interacting with strangers; I’m just on the lookout for someone to ask me the question that inevitably comes up. As new acquaintances seek to elicit information, the first question that comes to mind is “What do you do?”
It’s a reasonable enough way to find out a lot about somebody quickly. After all, people take a lot of pride in their work and some genuinely enjoy it. But what if you feel you’re totally over-educated for your current position? Maybe it’s just something you’re doing for money and you have no attachment to it? Maybe you’re in the job because you need as many shifts as you can get, and all the jobs you apply for that you really want don’t even acknowledge your application? You also know that if you mention you’ve worked in, say, manual labour, a whole series of prejudices and assumptions are going to begin barrelling through the mind of the person talking to you.
You also know that the absolute last thing you want to have a discussion about when you’re trying to enjoy yourself at a party is whether pay is meritocratic or if the unemployed could get a job if they just tried.
Commentators are happy to impugn the character of a generation for a lack of the work ethic that supposedly underpins the successes of previous generations. We’re not willing to work hard, they say; we can’t commit to a job; we aren’t willing to save. As if casualised workplaces, lack of career tracks and an inability to pay a gargantuan house deposit are the result of our failings.
I look at myself and my friends struggling, and it makes the generational battle that plays out online when discussing the housing market – the “coffee and avocado discussion” – all the more distasteful. A number of older commentators assert that we value different things, and this explains our inability to enter the housing market. Instead of saving for a mortgage, we are consuming avocado and coffee at a staggering rate. We also spend a lot on entertainment. This often leads to a discussion of how we enjoy working flexible hours and not being tied down to one career path. As if there is some desire to constantly move between jobs.
There is no evidence for any of this. As Jennifer Rayner points out in Generation Less (Redback, 2016), the job churn rate for those aged 20 to 34 is lower than the past. Older workers are actually changing jobs more frequently, and Australian Bureau of Statistics evidence suggests there is no difference in work ethic between generations. And yet the myth persists, despite our willingness to do unpaid work in the hope of finding a career.
So if there’s no evidence that shows we lack the willingness to work, it is the changing nature of work itself that is creating barriers for young people. Today’s employment market has changed, and continues to change at an accelerating rate. My generation is affected by the same changes as the disaffected Trump and Brexit voters: structural changes in the economy have primarily hit the lower end of the job market, the sectors where young workers predominate. Work is different today because of the globalised nature of the economy, the rapid pace of technological change – particularly automation – and the mass casualisation (or increased “flexibility”) of the workforce. In the developed world, these factors are increasing inequality by holding down wages and conditions at the bottom while raising them at the top.