A very depressing and poignant consequence of our nation's Education Arms Race and college graduate overproduction is employers' growing expectation that college graduates should slave away at unpaid internships. This is like adding insult to injury. It is no longer sufficient to invest four years in college and tens of thousands of dollars to prove that you are serious about working in a field and building a career. Now you need to work for free. In economic terms, people with college degrees and often advanced and professional degrees are now a dime-a-dozen and the base ability to perform white collar labor no longer has much value.
As people graduate into glutted fields, they seek out these unpaid internships in the desperate hopes of maintaining their employability and the value of their college degrees. Sadly, many if not most interns will probably fail to find work in their fields. It's easy to understand why people do it, and I don't blame them, but often they are just prolonging having to face reality while their hopes for middle class lives die slowly. The competition for good internships has become so bad that various sources have reported that some people are even paying money to work for free!
I have always taken offense to this notion that college graduates should work for free. They've paid their tuition, they've done their time, and they're ready to contribute. Perhaps decades ago it wasn't so awful. In the past, perhaps people were able to obtain career-building employment through internships, but today it seems like they are just providing free labor. It's somewhat understandable that employers would prefer to hire people who are working for free as opposed to moping around at home unemployed. Sadly, this social convention is victimizing hordes of unemployed and underemployed people.
If unpaid internships no longer provide a high chance of obtaining career-building employment in your field, then they are worse than slavery. At least slaves receive room and board. Interns only receive pats on the head while they pile on credit card and student loan debt. Modern day internships may thus be a form of neo-slavery imposed on unemployed and underemployed college graduates by our social conventions. This is just another aspect of our nation's decreasing quality of life and transformation into a third world country.
EDIT: For clarification, I don't deny that it's better to be a free intern than to be a slave. Slavery is a horrible thing and the suffering you might experience as an intern does not in any way compare to the suffering of being an actual slave. However, from a strictly economic perspective, it seems to me that a slave receives more compensation. That is not to say that it is good compensation or desirable compensation or that anyone would prefer to be an actual slave over an intern. I'm just saying that unless an unpaid internship leads to an actual job, a slave, or at least most slaves, receive more compensation in the form of some sort of food and shelter. My intention with this post was not to comment on slavery, but on unpaid internships. I hope this additional paragraph clarifies the context of my post for people who might wish to take it out of context.
EDIT April 5, 2012: A recent article published in Esquire sheds some light on the statistics:
Once you're out of college, you'll have to intern. Again, no choice. The practice of not paying young people for their labor has become so ingrained in the everyday practice of American business that we've forgotten how bizarre and recent the development is. In the early 1980s, 3 percent of college grads had had an internship. By 2006, 84 percent had done at least one. Multiple internships are common. According to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 75 percent of employers prefer students who have interned or had a similar working experience.Yup. I knew it. Previous generations didn't have to suffer working at free internships. So, when know-it-all Baby Boomers tell you to work for free, almost all of them are telling you to do something that they themselves probably would have regarded as being beneath them or as extremely distasteful forty-five years ago.