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Intern Europa: The Way Young People Join the Workforce Is In a Continent-Wide State of Collapse

17/08/2015 13:03 BST | Updated 13/08/2016 10:59 BST

The story of 22-year-old New Zealander David Hyde camping in a tent to afford his unpaid internship at the United Nations' European headquarters in Geneva is a sobering reminder that the problem of the young going unpaid is as intractable as ever. Here we have a major international institution flagrantly propping up entire departments with unpaid work in one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The image of Hyde standing beside his tent is a powerful emblem, but change the increasingly precarious way young people enter (or often fail to enter) the white collar workforce it will not.

Hyde's case also reminds us of how internationalised the concept of unpaid-labour -as-job-entry has now become. What arguably started as an American practice has now subsumed European rites of passage and distorted traditional European-style "stages" or "praktika", institutionalising free work. Unpaid internships aren't an aberration in an otherwise functioning system, they are at the heart of the widening inequality, wage stagnation and economic malaise taking hold over Europe.

In Madrid at the end of last year I attended a conference where researchers from across Europe compared the practices of unpaid internships in an initiative - Internstage - funded by the EU (which, as it happens, also makes regular use of unpaid interns at its Parliament). What emerged was a picture of systemic exploitation, in spite of the economic and political particularities of each constituent country.

In Spain, blighted by astronomical youth unemployment for the best part of a decade, we learnt that internships had superseded traditional traineeships in aeronautical engineering companies, for which the main consequence was lower pay and more precarious employment conditions. To anyone who thinks that low or unpaid internships are a preserve of hopefuls attempting to break-in into glamorous industries like the arts and media, think again. It doesn't get more sensible and STEM than aeronautics.

Once introduced, unpaid internships spread and become the new norm in tandem with the way once ordinary jobs are now only open to degree-holders. In Italy both trends converge: tourism has become an increasingly professionalised and degree-laden career choice. This has led to cases of graduates completing unpaid internships in what amounts to little more than bar work. Working behind a bar is meant to the prototypical career stop-gap, not an unremunerated "opportunity", even in a country where the hospitality industry is valued more than in the UK.

Public offices are not exempt either. Latvia is an emigrant state and what little of its young educated workers it can retain attempt to break into its civil service, where a network of quasi-patronage keep people from earning money for months. Almost total precarity is papered over with prestige, in a charade of employment relations.

Across Europe public institutions and private companies are manifestly failing to incorporate the young into the workforce and even when they do pay is often derisory. What has been happening to the European working class for decades is now befalling those privileged enough who did what they were told to ensure prosperity: got an education, became global citizens and imbibed the philosophy of "selling yourself". Today these are empty safeguards. No other European demographic has seen their wages decline and unemployment rise like 15-29-year-olds.

It often feels like Europe's young are the first on the sacrificial pyre for a crisis we haven't quite understood. It's not government deficits, bloated public sectors or not being able to compete with BRICs - it runs deeper. Better educated than ever before, yet thrown into a post-industrial and increasingly automated economy with near non-existent growth rates, it seems more young people are competing over fewer and fewer jobs. So important, however, is the status of work that if you have the resources you will forego pay, or otherwise tenaciously sleep in a tent.

It's no surprise that all major political insurgencies in Europe are youth driven: from Podemos, to Syriza and recently to Corbynmania. Young people don't feel like they have stake, even those who were promised one.

You don't need to be Paul Mason to sense that something is totally amiss and ask what these ubiquitous unpaid internships for. To cope with the surfeit of young hopefuls? To guarantee a certain kind or class of person enters into a job? To help maintain gratitude for being paid? To ease us into the idea of not being paid at all?

Perhaps unpaid internships are kind of miniature post-capitalism, where the bond between work and wage has been severed. Except of course that they are buttressing an ailing capitalist system, a crisis profitability and growth given a lifeline by scrimping on paying the youngest entrants.

Forty years ago, people regularly assumed that by the 21st century the demands of your job would have shrunk. But instead of working less and getting paid more, we work more than ever for no pay at all.