Unpaid internships are just a prelude to a lifetime of low pay, normalising the idea that money earned is not enough to live off.
Monday's publication of a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study that found young people are now statistically poorer than the over-65s is dispiritingly familiar. Every few weeks a government agency, think tank or charity will trudge through the data to reiterate that to be under 30 is to be adrift in a sea of zero-hour contracts, insatiable landlords and abyssal student debt. It's bleak and to say so is basically a truism.
In this sense, the unpaid internship is a rarified problem for the few - an unaffordable luxury that is now just an unpleasant rite of passage for an ever-widening range of professional careers. Middle class graduates see the starkly polarized world of the British hourglass economy and obviously choose to perform unpaid work in London rather than risk the life sentence of the dead-end service job. Internships, thus, become the only inequitable way to end up on the right side of the hourglass. This in spite of the well-rehearsed arguments for unpaid work's corrosive effects on social mobility and evidence that erstwhile interns actually go on to earn less. Recent surveys also found that unpaid work in the capital not only doesn't pay, it costs around £926 per month.
Yet to view worries over unpaid internships as the preserve of chattering class fretting is the same myopia that atomises other intertwined maladies of British body politic, treating them as separate entities until they blow up in our faces. Our current housing crisis, for instance, is the product of three decades of political mismanagement caused by the sell-off of council housing, an irresponsibly stoked boom in property speculation and the neutering of rental regulation. These have now coalesced into a hydra that affects virtually every demographic, but for too long no one drew the line between runaway property values and the resurgence of the Rachmanite landlord.
Perhaps something similar is going on with young people's pay? So only when we connect the dots between unpaid internships at a boutique design company in SW1 and shrinking pay packages for JD Sports shop assistants, do we see beyond our narrow sectional interests and spot a broader pattern?
It is that earnings for young people today are essentially increasingly meaningless and worthless, ever more decoupled from any real purchasing power. Of course, I don't mean that you might as well not earn anything. But in an economy where most low-paid workers are subsidised by the state in the form of, say, Housing Benefit, the notion that work doesn't really have to pay a living has become normalised. Far from being an aberration, the unpaid internship is merely the most extreme manifestation of this.
With a tiny handful of exceptions, salaries can longer guarantee the trappings of white collar affluence for young people. The house, a car, perhaps private education - all are untenable. Even more modest aims, like saving, are virtually impossible. We are now getting to the point where the sort of immiseration that has blighted working class lives for the past two generations is finally devouring the children of the bourgeoisie.
But there is no backlash. It's precisely because almost all work on offer for the young is so dire that highly vaunted industries can pay the same poverty wages that you'd expect to find at the opposite end of the economic spectrum. Thus, witness Christian Dior demanding two years' experience for a "receptionist intern" in their London office, but remunerating below the London living wage. Millennials - raised on a noxious mixture of declining wages and the Steve Jobs-style rhetoric of "Do what you love" self-actualisation - will still jump at the opportunity to exploit themselves by a brand name that at least has some cachet. We are all Thatcher's grandchildren, sans the "loads of money", or any money for that matter.
The aforementioned hourglass economy is a visual metaphor that describes the disappearance of middle income jobs, but at its heart there is a fallacy. We are not a country divided by earnings, so much as by assets - and this is especially true for the young. For Christian Dior to recruit someone compliant and presentable, to be paid a meager wage in the most expensive city on earth, essentially reads as "only the wealthy need apply". You can bet that the intended taker of the position would be someone for whom living in London was not a problem, someone whose position at the summit of the hourglass is most likely preordained because of their parents' esteemed position in the property market.
What was one only true for the most marginalised in society is becoming true for the majority: work doesn't pay; the career ladder is rigged and its cousin, the property ladder, a burden we all shoulder for a shrinking pool of rentiers.