Our favourite peons


From Ross Perlin’s new book on unpaid internships, ‘the principal point of entry for young people into the white-collar world’, ‘a form of mass exploitation hidden in plain sight’:

In much of the developed world, the subtle, relentless pressure to do an internship is now a crucial part of being young…

Internships may be everywhere today, but they remain such a recent, chaotic phenomenon that there are seldom any rules of the road, any standards or codes of conduct that are honoured  only vague expectations, for which no one is held accountable.

Even the word intern is a kind of smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job, and so on. Until just a few decades ago, the word referred almost exclusively to a particular brand of hands-on apprenticeship in the medical profession.

The internship has become a new and distinct form, located at the nexus of transformations in higher education and the workplace…

Today interns famously shuttle coffee in a thousand newsrooms, Congressional offices and Hollywood studios, but they also deliver aid in Afghanistan, write newsletters for churches, build the human genome, sell lipstick, deliver the weather report on TV, and pick up trash.

They are college students working part-time, recent graduates barely scraping by, thirty-somethings changing careers, and  increasingly  just about any white-collar hopeful who can be hired on a temporary basis, for cheap or for free. They’re our favourite peons, loaded with little indignities and pointless errands…

Even law firms specializing in employment issues have the gall to flout labour law by taking on unpaid interns and providing scant training.

In the last few decades, internships have spread to virtually every industry and almost every country, while internship-related businesses and campus career offices also proliferate (hawking internships, organizing internship fairs, declaring an “internship week” on campus, and so on)…

A half-century boom in nonprofit work and the much-touted blossoming of “civil society” have been powered unmistakeably by the internship explosion.

Indeed, if you go to the website of the Victorian Young Unionists Network, a creature of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, you will find internship positions advertised:

The Young Unionists Network was established five years ago because unions aren’t just for tuff old blokes. In fact, young people are most commonly the target of exploitation. Shift work, long hours without overtime, unpaid (illegal) “trial periods”, even dangerous working conditions: these are some of the issues young workers face and all too often accept.

That’s why we invited people to apply for our Union Summer three week internship programme  so you can learn how to fight back! Union Summer gives people committed to social justice and workers rights the opportunity to get involved in an educational internship working in trade unions with organizers and union activists.

We aim to bring unions together with young workers, students and activists and give them the opportunity to get active in organizing campaigns that address these issues  through an internship.

As Perlin mentions, the rise of unpaid internships and other low-paid or precarious work in the ‘career path’ of many young people in advanced economies is bound up with changes to higher education.

In recent decades, due to rising tuition fees and an inflated housing market, many young adults have been forced to finance current consumption by borrowing.

But, because they own fewer assets than later-middle-aged people, this is not collateralized borrowing. And debt is serviced not out of realized or prospective capital gains (i.e. sale of equities or appreciated real estate) but paid out of low and unreliable income streams.

The amount of prudent borrowing that can occur is thus limited. Liquidity constraints  inability to finance spending much beyond their immediate cash inflows  condemn many young adults to a fragile existence and low material standard of living.

Lenddo Friend-o-meter

Meanwhile, as the demographic structure of the advanced economies has changed, the number of working years during which employees can save for life-cycle reasons has become fewer. Net saving has been restricted to, at best, a few middle decades of an individual’s working life (despite mandatory contributions to private superannuation funds).

In Australia, which has one of the highest rates of casual labour as a proportion of the total workforce in the OECD, people aged 15-24 make up over 40% of casual workers. Across the advanced economies, the labour-market prospects for young people are atrocious.

The chart below shows the unemployment trend in Australia over the past thirty-five years.

Observe, in the chart below, the abrupt step-change in the labour-force status of Australian men aged 25-34 that occurred following the early 1990s recession, via the Keating government’s Working Nation policy response.

Working Nation was a ‘reciprocal obligation’ package of compulsory vocational training, activity tests, case workers (‘minders’ who offered ‘encouragement and moral suasion’, and whose work was ‘opened up to competition’ from privately-owned non-governmental contractors for the first time), along with Jobstart.

Under Jobstart, the federal government subsidized the wage bill of private firms who took on long-term unemployed young workers. Thus youth were channelled towards economically marginal enterprises that offered them sporadic, insecure and poorly paid entry-level jobs. (Wage subsidies, which ranged from $100 to $230 per week, expired after nine months, after which few employees were retained.)

Citing ‘strong community concern that some unemployed people are making insufficient effort to find employment’, harsher penalties were imposed on those who did not ‘accept any reasonable job offer.’ (Others were obliged to perform voluntary work to retain eligibility.)

A chief goal, averred the prime minister, was to ‘to encourage more substantial part-time and casual work.’

Working Nation’s explicit objective, amid mass unemployment on a scale unprecedented since the Great Depression, was ‘not to directly increase the total stock of jobs… Rather, the prime object is to improve the efficiency of the labour market/s by contouring the labour supply to match demand.’

The burden of this whipping into shape fell disproportionately on the young.

Keating - Working Nation

This has been a common feature shared across the advanced economies since the 1970s even as successive generational cohorts grow smaller due to falling birthrates. The long-term trajectory has been buttressed by cyclical factors: young people have fared the worst during the global slowdown since 2007.

In the United States, the unemployment rate for people aged 16-24 is now 19.7%, well above the all-ages aggregate figure, and the highest since 1948, when collection began. The U-6 unemployment rate (the sum of unemployment and underemployment, including unwilling part-timers, people discouraged for ‘job market-related reasons’ and not bothering to seek work, and other ‘marginally attached’ people, which in Australia is called the ‘labour underutilization rate’) for people in this age group is around 30%, compared to just over 16% for the population as a whole.

For people aged 16-19, the US unemployment rate increased by a third between June 2008 and June 2011; the proportion of the teenage US population employed has fallen from 35% to 25% over that period. The unemployment rate for African-Americans aged 16-19 is 40%, a figure which, of course, does not include those incarcerated.

In Canada, youth unemployment is also above 19%, in France it’s above 22%, in Italy, Belgium and Sweden one quarter of people aged 16-24 are unemployed and, in Spain, the rate has been above 40% for several years (compared to a current 21% for the workforce as a whole). All these figures are dramatically worse than in previous recessions (i.e. 1982 and 1991).

The situation is thus ripe for ruling social layers and their conduits in the media to adopt a divide-and-rule strategy, fomenting intergenerational discord.

OECD reports, taking advantage of today’s budget deficits to push for global privatization of public pensions, warn darkly of ‘intergenerational conflict over public resources’ if their message is unheeded.

Government pensions form a ‘stress point for relations between generations’, threatening ‘a breakdown… in the informal nexus of support within and between families which is so vital… in providing the essential glue which holds society together.’

The Cato Institute, more vividly, speaks of ‘war between the generations’ with spending on the elderly ‘set to explode’: ‘taxes to support growth in Medicare and Social Security will severely eat away at young people’s income in coming years unless those programs undergo fundamental reforms.’

‘Is war between generations inevitable?’ ask two economists from another US think-tank. Sadly, they conclude we are facing the ‘beginning of an enormous conflict over resources. Indeed, it is probably no exaggeration to say that we are approaching generational warfare.’

In the mainstream press, meanwhile, one opinion columnist will piously advise baby boomers to cede their ‘privileges’; another commentator, playing to a different crowd, will decry youthful ‘job snobs’.

The interests of youth, it will be explained, are opposed to those of their elders: each can only prosper at the expense of the other.

For are not houses inherently scarce, and aren’t there only so many good jobs to go around? Some order of precedence must be settled upon for allocating these scarce and valuable goods; and, well, the natural succession of human generations must come into it some way or another.

Given ready access to the media, such are the lineaments, fleshed out publicly in endless hearings, of a purported conflict of interest between generational cohorts: indebted students and marginally employed young people, on the one hand, assailing the complacent fortress of asset-rich retirees and middle-aged employees on the other.

What is, in reality, an inter-generational game of common interest (in which the vast majority of the population, sharing a life-cycle and few savings, would mutually benefit from an arrangement under which secure work and shelter were readily available to all at any age) is thereby transformed into a pure-conflict game, in which a finite pie must be divided, with gains for one party implying losses for another.

Respective payoffs in pure-conflict and common-interest games - Samuel Bowles

For such a barren vision to kindle any kind of popular response, ‘generational’ categories must already have acquired salience and become the stuff of affiliation. As luck would have it, this requires little dedicated effort or on-the-spot improvisation. Adventitiously, the conditions already exist.

In late capitalism, official civic pluralism (ideological celebration of postmodern ‘diversity’ and heterogeneity) is supplemented, in the commercial sphere, by targeted or ‘niche marketing’, which encourages fine-grained horizontal segmentation of consumers according to ascriptive traits (age, sex, ethnicity) or ‘identity’.

Tailored communication (including discriminatory pricing and product offers or ‘versioning’) proceeds along distinct, non-overlapping channels.

Product differentiation (which becomes ever more important as price competition wanes) encourages oligopolistic firms to ‘pack the product space’, introducing new products and brands to occupy each potential market niche and deter competitors. (On my latest visit to the supermarket, I counted 23 varieties of Colgate toothpaste.)

Thus we see the proliferation of spurious brand variety with meaningless attributes, claiming to distinguish more-or-less identical products via group-specific ‘psychographics‘.

Ross Simmonds - Gen Y psychographics

Finally, firms pursuing network externalities (in which there are increasing returns with the number of buyers of a product) seek to assemble consumer in-groups, knitted together through friendship, shared demographic characteristics or similar cultural outlook.

Group identity, naturally, depends on erecting barriers to entry that exclude outsiders (who do not possess the requisite quality or trait) from admission.

no old people

Such segmentation according to demographic category may overlap with labour-market segmentation.  (Besides the young, the most obvious example is women, who are disproportionately found in the least-skilled and worst-paid sections of the workforce, performing low-wage, high-turnover, messy and unsafe jobs. If one sorts Australian full-time non-managerial employees by mean weekly earnings, the lowest-paid occupations are textile, clothing and footwear trades, hairdressers, childcare workers, checkout operators, cleaners and laundry workers, receptionists, food-preparation and hospitality workers. Employees in these industries are typically women, while marketing for their products is also generally addressed to female consumers.)

As Adam Smith noted in his example of the philosopher and the street porter, the mere existence of a social division of labour imposes distinctions of ‘habit, custom and education’ between ‘men of different professions’, until they can acknowledge ‘scarce any resemblance’ between each other.

But Smith concluded such differences were ‘much less than we are aware of’: ‘By nature a philosopher is not in genius and disposition half so different from a street porter, as a mastiff is from a greyhound, or a greyhound from a spaniel, or this last from a shepherd’s dog.’

Yet today, in a vastly more advanced stage of what Smith called commercial society, the media and advertising industries accustom people to being addressed as part of a narrow, precisely specified demographic pool  distinguishing owners of mastiffs from those of greyhounds and spaniels  rather than as a common (class-divided) social aggregate with shared interests.

When opportunity arises, this pre-existing infrastructure of social distinctions can provide the basis for demagogic mobilization by political entrepreneurs (electorally or otherwise).

Obama 2008 vote by ageObama 2008 vote by age and ethnicity



Age, of course, is not a useful basis for in-group attachment and out-group mistrust, as one’s classification as young or old does not persist over time as one’s racial, religious or gender status mostly does. So ‘generational’ categories are used instead: ‘baby boomer’, generation Y’, etc.

As in other cases, this involves partitioning people according to some characteristic, encouraging affinity within groups and dislike between them, vilifying the subordinate group  ‘gen Y’ is ‘lazy’, etc  and calling forth a group of ‘leaders’ who can represent that group’s interests and be the ‘voice of youth’.

The group will be said to constitute a special interest that must appoint its own lobbyists to secure its share of the spoils.

Meanwhile the accrual of professional status and social privileges by this youthful aristoi or ‘talented tenth’ will, it’s claimed, benefit all or most members of the group. Thus, in Australia, Natasha Stott Despoja, Sarah Hanson-Young, Kate Ellis and Tanya Plibersek plead that only by advancing the career prospect of advocates like themselves  electing them to parliamentary assemblies, granting them scholarships or seating them on corporate boards of directors, including the youth minister in cabinet  can young adults as a group improve their fortunes.

In reality, neither the enrichment of a few young adults, proximity of ‘youth representatives’ to the levers of power and channels of influence,  nor the increased ‘diversity’ (age-wise) of the state elite and propertied classes will alter the increasingly tenuous and put-upon status of young people in education and the labour market.

‘Youth representatives’ may, to a limited extent (and supposing their generational solidarity is sincere and not cynical careerism), pressure the state to spend in certain areas, pass favourable legislation, and bestow patronage upon their allies.

But by necessity, and to a far greater degree, their range of possible actions will be constrained by, and not allowed to conflict with, the fundamental needs of an economy that has over recent decades decreed that young adults are to be indebted, savings out of income made impossible, their jobs insecure and labour performed for little or no compensation, necessities (health, education, shelter) placed out of or barely within reach, and their living standards lowered.


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5 Responses to “Our favourite peons”

  1. Alex Says:

    Too funny about those union internships – ooh, the cheek!

    Glad to see some interrogation on the blog about the recent ramping up of the so-called ‘generation-gap wars.’ The last time I remember it being so popular to slag off young people was the during the ‘slacker Gen-X’ fad that occured around about the time of (well, whaddaya know), the 1991 recession. Even as a young child that made quite an impression on me at the time (mostly via ‘The Simpsons,’ actually!).

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