On the bus this morning, a young father was distributing pocket money to his three small children. The eldest was kicking the back of my chair in bone-jarringly rhythmic anticipation of being taken to town for a day's shopping, but when he received his small handout, the kicking stopped.
'I'm not going to spend my three pounds, dad," announced the boy, "I'm going to save it, and then I’m going to save all my pocket money, and then I can go to university and get a good job."
This may, of course, have been the sort of cunning ploy to wheedle extra cash out of your parents that anyone who was ever a smartarse seven-year-old will recognise. It speaks volumes about the state of social equality, though, that whilst this primary school pupil from inner London was contemplating forfeiting an entire childhood's worth of treats to afford a chance at higher education and fulfilling work, wealthy Oxford graduates were taking up prestigious internships which they had purchased at a lavish charity auction held at the university last month.
Students who attended the opulent Red Couture Ball, entry tickets for which were priced at up to £300, were able to bid thousands of pounds for coveted professional placements with law firms and fashion designers. A mini-pupillage with barrister Neil Kitchener QC was under the hammer, alongside designer gowns, hotel breaks and other goodies only available to the extremely well-off. Sam Frieman, co-organiser of the auction, told The Cherwell that "you can only come to the auction if you have paid for a ticket. In response to the criticism that a lot of people could be priced out, I would say, 'that's life'."
Internships like these are now prerequisites for many jobs, and most interns work extremely hard to obtain and finance work placements. "As someone from a low-income, East Midlands background, this auction is another reminder that I'm at a disadvantage because I can't afford an internship,” said recent Oxford graduate Kate Gresswell, 21. Relative inequality within the Oxbridge system is hardly the pressing issue of our day, but if even Oxford graduates are finding that money matters more than merit in the job market, something has gone terribly wrong in our social calculations.
The internship system is already expensive enough to exclude all but the richest and most fortunate young people from popular jobs. I could pretend, for example, that it's my winning smile and blatant genius which have enabled me to find work as a journalist - but a year's unpaid interning, during which I survived on a small inheritance from a dead relative, had just as much to do with it. Any graduate or school-leaver without the means to support themselves in London whilst working for free can currently forget about a career in journalism, politics, the arts, finance, the legal profession or any of a number of other sectors whose business models are now based around a lower tier of unpaid labour.
After the relative levelling of university, class reasserts itself with whiplash force as graduates from low-income backgrounds find the doors of opportunity slammed in their faces. Last week, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development called for employers to be legally obliged to pay interns a minimum wage of £2.50 an hour, but such a step is unlikely to be taken by the Coalition, which has already made it breathtakingly clear that preventing young people from falling through the cracks in our society is not likely to be a priority any time soon.
With seventy applicants for every new vacancy, with over a million young people unemployed and with millions more languishing in insecure, temporary and poorly-paid work, the job market is now open only to those who can afford to buy their way in. The Telegraph reports that across the country hundreds of placements are being sold or brokered, often at similar auctions for the wealthy, where the fact that proceeds go to charity gives the new nobility yet another reason to be smug about affording the life chances that previous generations enjoyed for free.
For the few of us who are wealthy enough to finance ourselves through work placements, only a firm push is needed to force open the doors of opportunity. Without a coordinated effort to reverse this regressive trend, the years to come will be littered with wasted potential and filled with disappointments for young people with nothing to bring to the table but talent, creativity and ambition.