If you are younger than 28, have studied something else than hard sciences and work in the public sector, culture or media, you are likely still to be an intern. Even if you are not, people you meet are very likely to consider you as such, since internships have become standard for these sectors in our developed economies.
While the education level of the generation currently entering the labour market has never been so high, it has paradoxically become more difficult for these young people to secure a position able to provide at least some stability and financial independence. Therefore, they are trying to take as many internships as possible and gain professional experience and contacts now necessary to find a “real” first job.
Not only is the content of these internships sometimes poor from an educational perspective, but the positions are not well paid, if at all. As a consequence, interns must prolong their student life, live with roommates or parents and, when possible – internships do not preclude working extra hours –, take a part-time job. It may be less prestigious, but at least paid the minimum wage, which is more than most internships.
Despite its large scale, this phenomenon has been so far hardly documented and rarely creates strong social protest. Let's mention nevertheless Ross Perlin's book Intern Nation (http://rossperlin.com) or the French movement “Génération précaire” (http://www.generation-precaire.org) that both attempt to collect interns' stories and measure how many they and how much they contribute to the economy. In the public or nonprofit sectors, in particular in cities like Washington or Brussels, it is usually acknowledged that many organizations could not work properly without interns' input. When internships are regulated by law (https://www.propublica.org/article/when-interns-should-be-paid-explained/) however, they must in most cases primarily have an educational purpose and cannot in any away substitute regular jobs.
A collective action problem...
Even though justice often stands on interns' side (https://www.propublica.org/article/unpaid-interns-win-major-ruling-in-black-swan-case-now-what/), very few of them go to court. They may be willing to denounce in private the injustice of the system but they behave at the same time as “consenting victims” who hope that after some months of hardship, they will cope better than the others and get a job. This collective action problem leads the young to subject to stricter and stricter selection procedures – some are even more complex than for recruiting regular employees. They are even ready to “pay to work for free”, through extremely high living costs in cities like Geneva or New York or fees taken by placement agencies to organize internships abroad. In Europe, high unemployment rates, especially among young people, have been making the situation even worse.
Recruiters are not the only ones to take advantage of a system that provides them with a well-educated workforce, very flexible and often willing to give the best of themselves. Former interns who succeeded in crossing the bridge and signing an employment contract soon forgive their previous condition and try to hire interns in order to get rid of the less noble tasks. They are nevertheless convinced that they do good giving applicants what they ask for.
… with significant hidden costs to society
In the apparent absence of movement determined to question this system, one may think it is not necessary to do so. However, the rise of the internship economy implies significant hidden costs to society. First, as Ross Perlin underlines, it has the effect to exclude from the most influential jobs (administration, politics, media...) children from middle class families who cannot afford to work for free or even to lose money for months and months. Moreover, because interns do not pay social security contributions and cannot found a family without adequate housing, their late entry in the “real” labour market represents a serious demographic and economic threat.
Consequently, public authorities would be legitimate to intervene in order to bring a solution to the collective action problem and to ensure that on the one hand, the content of internships meets their initial – and essential – educational purpose and, on the other hand, that they stop distorting the labour market through unfair competition. On the side of civil society, initiatives which aim at improving knowledge of the intern economy also deserve support, such as ProPublica's project “Investing Internships” (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/propublica/investigating-the-intern-economy). They may help us to recall that not so long ago, it was not an exception for young graduates to find jobs at “prestigious” institutions right after college and earn a decent living. To recall and maybe to restore it.