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Millennials: A Generation of Unpaid Workers

By Bridget Campos, 1/21/2015

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Today’s young adults are facing a dire crisis where higher education is exceeding job demands. Many college grads are facing a rude awakening where their only ‘career prospects’ are low-wage employment, while others are finding it difficult to find work altogether. We will see what the long-term ramifications will be on this global trend for generations to come


Would you ever consider working for free? This is not to sound satirical or even humorous for that matter, but it is a legitimate question. Do you think you could have a prosperous career without getting paid? This may seem hard to believe, but many young adults that are entering into the workforce are dealing with such a dilemma. They are encouraged to gain experience by working for nothing. At a commencement speech in 2013, one of the leading designers in London, Dick Powell, stated to graduates at the New Designers exhibition that “the easiest way to get a job” as a designer, is by offering to work for free. 

“Offer anything, do anything…Work for nothing, make tea, carry bags, and learn, learn, learn,” said Powell.  

More companies (both in the public and private sector) from around the world are seeking to hire young people to work for free. This mainly could be because young adults are more than likely still living at home without any financial obligations and thus would be more willing to compromise at not getting paid. Just last year, Greek Education Minister, Andreas Loverdos, announced that he wants to fill 1,100 job vacancies with teachers that are willing to work on a “volunteer basis.” Due to Greece’s economic downturn, these past few years, this has lead to very little funding for public services, including education, which is why schools are having teacher shortages. According to daily newspaper TA NEA, Loverdos is proposing to would be volunteers that if they accept the job they will be rewarded with “bonus points” that will maybe down the line improve their hiring options sometime in the future. 

Some post graduates are so desperate to get their foot in the door in the field of their choice they are going so far as to paying employers to hire them. One 23-year-old grad student, Roz Tuplin, admits to taking this route. She states to BBC News, “It seems to be the way things are going…It is essential that you have experience, but it’s just the way things are these days.” 

According to the UN’s International Labour Organization, the doom and gloom of 74 million youths around the world between the ages of 15 and 24 being three times more likely to face higher unemployment than adults doesn’t end there. They also predict this trend will continue to worsen until 2018. It is no wonder why Millennials are taking to the streets in protest.

Unpaid Youths is now a Reality, Not a Theoretical Possibility


Some may feel that ILO’s statistics on youth unemployment is more affecting to third world countries and has little to do with Americans that live in such a strong economy. It may seem that way, but there are youths in the US that face another problem—being cheated by employers on rightfully earned pay. One way employers are doing this is by using unpaid (or low-wage paid) internship to replace full-time, entry-level positions. Of course the US Department of Labor has set strict standards of what employers can consider intern work and what is not. For example, under the Fair Labor Standards Act an intern is not to replace the role of existing employees and that the internship must be similar to the training they would get in an educational environment. However, former interns feel the Labor Dept. is not doing enough to ensure employers are actually enforcing such standards intently. Some are even taking matters into their own hands by suing former employers that violate such apprenticeship labor laws and demand that new laws are set in place to make sure interns are given a livable wage that would remedy workplace injustice, as reported by BBC News.

Of course in some careers, particularly in the creative field, such as the entertainment industry, publishing, and arts where getting paid little to nothing is quite common. Some can start off as assistants or coffee runners and eventually gain experience in the career of their choice. Though it is taking a gamble that you will make a living off of your ideal career in the creative field, some feel the sacrifice is worth it for the sake of doing what they love. However, there are some young adults that don’t have a career ambition, but rather work for the sake of making a daily living. These are employees that work a set amount of hours and expect to get paid on time the amount they are promised prior to being employed.

Another way employers take advantage of their non-exempt employees is by not paying them all the hours that they worked, (including overtime pay if you worked more than 40 hours a week), but instead demand that employees work off the clock during their lunches and paid breaks. Now you may be thinking, well this offense has to be from small start-up businesses that are just struggling to make enough revenue to pay their employees consistently. But actually the biggest offenders of wage theft are major retail stores such as Walmart, Staples, Levi Strauss, and Forever 21, including the fast food industry like Subway, McDonald’s, and Dunkin’ Donuts as reported by But some may wonder how can such companies that make billions of dollars annually cheat low-wage employees out of their hard-earned pay? It all stems down to two words: cost effectiveness. It's a nice term for really enforcing major cut backs within the company in any way to increase profitability. All large companies strive for reaching their company’s goal of being the most cost effective. But some companies intentionally take it so far as to train managers and supervisors to make employees work off the clock by threats that if a worker doesn’t comply then they will be fired immediately. Usually the victims of such illegal actions are not only immigrants, but young adults due to their being ill-informed of their employee rights, and just having an overall lack of life experience to know that they are being taken advantage of by their boss. Some young adults might reason that at least having part of their salary is better than not having a paycheck at all.

The Future Outlook for Millennials

Because young adults are facing the reality of low-wages and not enough income to cover their student loan debt, many are having to move back in with their parents or still have to live at home much longer than expected due to not being able to find a job at all. According to the Office for National Statistics, a total of 3.3 million 20-to-34 year-olds lived with their parents in 2013 that is a 25% increase, the highest number since it started keeping records in 1996. 

It is no surprise that there has been a delay in young adults leaving the nest. But it has gone further than that, this has also led to some choosing to wait well into their late 20’s or even 30’s to get married and start a family of their own, until they are financially able to. And there are others that have chosen to start a family within their own childhood home out of necessity. However, this is causing some to not save for the future, but rather spend their low wage earnings on the latest techno gadgets, going out to eat, and leisure activities just to get out of the house. In turn, this delays Millennials from reaching the normal milestones of adulthood- being independent by living on their own (or married) and in the near future becoming potential home buyers to raise a family in.

"The recession hit the young particularly hard, with a sharp rise in youth unemployment. Furthermore, there was a collapse in the availability of mortgages for buyers with small deposits, which prevented many would-be first-time buyers from flying the nest," Housing economist, Matthew Pointon, tells the Guardian, “With lenders demanding a deposit of at least 25%, and with savings rates at record lows, many young buyers desperate to get on the housing ladder would have seen staying with their parents a little longer to boost their savings as their only option."

How will this affect the next generation to come? It’s hard to determine what will be the actual outcome for Generation Z and others. Because some will have grown up in their grandparents' home among siblings and their parents, this could make them used to living in a less spacious environment. But the positive outlook is that it could make them closer to their family, because they are raised in a household were sacrifice has become the social norm. It could be quite common for next generations (depending on their economic class) to accept living in smaller housing and receiving less pay because their parents experienced the same thing too. It might even seem like a thing in the past to own a home or even a car for that matter. Now some might argue that Americans have suffered hardships in the past like during the Great Depression. But people overcame the financial suffering and bounced back into a stronger, more technologically advanced society. That may be true, but keep in mind the Silent Generation didn’t have to face today’s problems of a global recession, continuous inflation on goods and services, and relying heavily on credit and borrowed money to pay for everyday things. Our generation has become so used to relying on services out of convenience because we are always on the go and too busy focusing more on entertainment and socializing.

Due to extensive student loan debt, many college graduates already feel their hopes of success seems  much further away because they will have to deal with this financial burden for another decade or two of their life. But a possible sign of help has arrived. On January 9 of this year, US President Barack Obama made a proposal to provide two years of free community college to qualified students, saving them over $8,000 in tuition fees. “I want to spread that idea all across America, so that two years of college becomes as free and universal in America as high school is today,” said the President. This will not only help ease the burden of student financial debt, but make them more economically competitive. So far the President’s proposal is being supported by Congress, which means it could go into effect in the immediate future. But still post undergraduates will have to face an uncertain job market. So this may seem like a glass half empty, half-full scenario. I believe USA Today put it best in their article “Unemployment a Crisis for Youth” by stating, “As the economic recovery continues, we must ensure that we understand the [statistical] numbers behind the numbers. This means not only paying close attention to the needs of our young workers, but also responding with significant and decisive action. The United States has a population of over 300 million. Of these, 120 million are under the age of 30. Their future is our future.”

Photo Credit by Darren Robb