Why unpaid internships are not about Gen Z being snowflakes

Education is the number one concern for many young Europeans. The EU gives opportunities to gain knowledge or experience, such as Erasmus+ or different education programmes and exchanges. But, education doesn't stop there. Actually, the "real thing" starts after that. After we graduate, we build our experience during internships.

Some young people have the opportunity to do it in MEP offices. Until now, paying those interns was "optional". Some of the MEPs were giving financial compensation, but some of them were only offering experience. Thanks to the EU and the European Parliament, since March 2019 that will no longer be the case - it was decided that all interns working in EU institutions will be paid.

Equal opportunities?... um, about that

Entering the "real world" after many years of education can be a shock. The right internship position can be more than helpful for young people. We can gain knowledge, make friendships and connections useful for our future life and - the most important part - we gain experience in real life situations that cannot be found in any book. The part to be discussed is financial compensation for our work. On one hand...

Like we’ve already said - internships and the experience they provide is invaluable. But the sad reality is that the majority of internships are unpaid. Now, you might ask - what is the issue with this? Surely the experience these interns gain is worth more than any paycheque? The answer to that question is debatable.

However, what isn’t debatable is the pure and simple fact that unpaid internships create a glaring divide in our society. They favour those of a higher socioeconomic background, giving them advantages over their counterparts from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Dear reader, for a moment I want you to imagine yourself as someone entirely new. You come from a wealthy, affluent background. You have the support of your family behind you. Thankfully, they pay for your accommodation and living expenses.They even throw on a monthly allowance for you to go out, have fun, shop a little bit.Your parents always recommended that you focus on school, and the joy of being young, so you’ve never had to work a part time job. You’ve been offered an internship and you don’t even have to think about it. You say yes instantly. You can put your heart and soul into learning everything you possibly can at your new work place, and bask in such a great experience. The perfect situation. How great will this 6 month placement look on your CV?

Now reader, I want you to look on the flip side. You’re coming from a background with extremely limited resources. Money was always tight. Even affording the basics like food on the table and a roof over your family’s head was a challenge. You have already fought tooth and nail to get to where you are today. After all, we all know university doesn’t come cheap. Throughout your college experience, you always wished you could afford to quit your part time job and focus on your studies. However, it wasn’t financially feasible. So you soldier on, balancing both. You know that for some assignments you didn’t get to display your best work - but what choice did you have? Have wages to pay for your light bill, or get an A+ instead of a B-? Now you’ve been offered an internship at your dream job. However, it’s unpaid. 40 hours a week, which you know will stretch into many late nights at the office. Balancing that and a part time job just isn’t possible. You want to say yes, desperately. But you know you can’t. So you turn down the internship and keep trying to find a decently paid entry-level position.

A few months down the line, these people in very different circumstances apply for the same job. Now, who gets it? The person who’s done a 6 month internship in a similar field, or the person who doesn’t have any experience listed on their CV? I think we both know the answer.

Unpaid internships have many pros:

  • Learning how to work in a team environment
  • Developing good time-management skills
  • Figuring out to how to get along with a diverse group of colleagues
  • Becoming confident enough to express your opinions

However, keep in mind that these pros only apply to those who are privileged enough to be able to commit to unpaid internships without worrying about the burden of their cost of living. Sadly, these types of internships widen the gap in society that allows the rich to get richer and the poor to get poorer. Why? Because equality of employment opportunities unfortunately just does not exist.

So, the question to be asked is - what about other young people all around Europe and their internships?

Youth unemployment in Croatia

In Croatia, that beautiful little country in the south, we fight with unemployment. Sun and sea provide us extra jobs only during summer. The situation is hard and most of the employers can't really afford to pay new workers, interns as well. Some of them don't want to hire young people because they haven't gained any experience so far. It’s a vicious circle - you can’t find a job because you have no experience, but you cannot gain experience if no one wants to hire you.

It was a big issue, so a few years ago, the state came up with a programme to fight youth unemployment but also unpaid internships. Employers give young people the chance to be interns. Internships can last 6-12 months and it is free for the employers because the state provides financial compensation - 2500 kn (approx. 330€). So, the problem of unpaid internships and inexperienced young people seems to be solved.

But, there are some bad sides to this programme. On one hand, the amount of money paid is not even close to covering your expenses, but on the other hand, it is way better than 0€ or sitting at home. Also, some of the employers are now using this programme to hire "free workers" and save their own money.

Altogether, while the problem of unpaid internships is solved in theory, there are still many aspects to be discussed.

The European Parliament’s decision to ban unpaid internships is certainly a step in the right direction. Young people can still work for MEPs and gain invaluable experience, but now the only difference is that they’ll be paid for it. Going forward, it would be great to see more and more companies copy this move. The more internships available to young people, the better! I don’t think we need to list the numerous benefits again. But every time we praise the benefit of internships, let us remember that they’re not so great for everyone. So just pay your interns!

So, what do you think of this issue of paid vs unpaid internships? Do you have any thoughts, comments or questions? Feel free to let us know!
And remember, if you give a shit then #GiveAVote.