While looking for work, people came out of the woodwork and started to explain why I couldn’t find a job. The main arguments were that I went to school for the wrong thing. I spoke with my cranky ex on the phone and he told me that there are plenty of jobs in health information systems, so it’s really the unemployed’s own fault for not learning how to use Excel in college. When I was in school, the hot ticket degrees changed often. Yet there are not enough jobs in health information systems to fill the hole of youth unemployment in today’s world. Not enough nursing jobs, not enough IT jobs. There is very little discussion of youth unemployment on a macro scale. Weighed down with debt, the average graduate is only 50% likely to hold gainful employment. Legions are graduating with arts degrees and psychology degrees with no intention to go into these industries. The mantra we heard growing up was: You Must Go To College. We did. Now what?
The youth unemployment debate generally ignores the rapidly changing nature of the US economy. Youth unemployment is the highest in recorded history. Whereas decades ago, someone could hold a job at a factory and support a family of three with a high school degree, now the job market is becoming more drawn between white-collar and service work. I know at least a dozen people who applied to Americorp programs and were turned away because of a glut of applicants. Building bridges is not an option in a broken federal system and floundering, finance-based economy. The best and brightest from Ivy league schools go to work on Wall Street. The rest are lucky to score mid-level management jobs gaming search engines. Many more end up working a shift at Starbucks for the health care. When gainful employment comes knocking, a thoroughly disciplined young worker low-balls their salary offer, is willing to work long hours, and will do just about anything to keep from losing their job. Demanding anything from the employer is seen as shocking and irrational in a world where only a handful of your friends even have jobs.
The Rise of the Intern
Internships are a natural market-based result of the youth unemployment problem. They were once mainly for those who were still in school, but a number of them are now more accurately considered job-seekers in their own right. As graduates become more and more desperate for work, any work, they are more likely to work for no pay. Whereas going to college was once necessary to assure future success, now working in any capacity is just as necessary. Told that internships are a great “foot in the door”, they are just as likely to be sources of highly-skilled, cheap and easily-replaceable labor. Permanent positions are transformed into two or more internship positions. Interns are led on with the promise of wages only to be dismissed without cause a day before their contract is to be signed.
Even then, the privilege necessary to gain access to one of these unpaid internships in a major city is immense. No one can live in New York City working a 40-hour per week unpaid internship without help from their family or ridiculous debt. As the internships in policy and media positions (widely unpaid) are generally located in places with high costs of living, this shuts out a whole class of people from accessing these career paths. Additionally, unpaid interns do not have the protection of labor laws against racial discrimination and sexual harassment. Low-paid interns similarly do not have access to certain kinds of employment protections. Interns provide a highly-flexible labor force of desperate grads who are not promised anything - and they are slitting throats to see who will get into even these positions. Some organizations have even dropped the pretense of “internships” - figuring it might promise too much - and are now increasingly offering “volunteer” positions with set office hours and lengthy interview processes. For sure, Beltway interns are not like Foxconn interns - those teens who work for no pay assembling your iPhones in China - but it gets damn close in some situations.
The burden: anywhere but on the state!
The major presidential candidates are quick to agree that the government does not create jobs. Increasingly, the government does not take care of the unemployed, either. Luckily for the cohesion of our society, this graduating class of losers and art majors are able to lean on their struggling parents for financial assistance while the state makes laws to let people in their mid-twenties stay on their parents’ health insurance plans. In the United States, there is no job-seeker’s allowance, and no state-run agency to place skilled workers. The government has fewer and fewer jobs to offer as austerity begins to hit. The number of 25-34 year olds living with their parents has shot up to 30%. New families are forming later and later in life, affecting population growth among a class that never had much of a problem bearing children at 25. Of course, these trends have an effect on the state down the line, and in the present tense as well, but the direct impact of disappearing opportunities for young people seems to be skillfully deflected away from the state. As we round back to the blame game, the responsibility is on the students for not picking a good major in college, for not taking endless unpaid internships, on their parents for raising expectations, etc. The youth of today is lazy and aimless, content to stay at home and play video games instead of look for work.
Perhaps some of these perceptions are true. But the ultimate responsibility is on the state, which encourages this culture of privilege and wealth at the same time denying it to a vast majority of citizens. There is little long-term strategy when it comes to American economic growth - tax breaks, tax loopholes and small businesses are talked about on the campaign trail in the same paragraphs as free-trade agreements, evil teacher unions, and rising crime. We forget that this crisis in unemployment is mainly due to an economy that has shipped manufacturing jobs abroad or has found it worthwhile to exploit migrants. The state, with a shrinking tax base, is unable to maintain employment or standards of living with federal programs. As capitalism is allowed to run rampant, so too the contradictions deepen. An increasing number of service jobs are now automated - we get our movies from Red Box or Netflix and check ourselves out at the grocery store. I used to feel okay being turned down for jobs that would go to a 40 year old mother of three, but the situation is hardly changing, and I doubt that she much appreciates working a $15 an hour job at her age and situation in life. The time of the 5-year plan has gone; now numbers are projected to the next earnings report or presidential election. Problems arise and only short-term fixes are proposed. No one is seriously considering the impact of a generation of young people who are unable to live independently until the age of 35.