Unpaid internships probably aren't good for anyone other than the companies and organizations that "hire" unpaid interns. If the statistics offered by websites like Unfair Internships are to be trusted, unpaid interns are not much more likely to find permanent work than students who have never done an internship at all. This is likely because students who work at unpaid internships are seen as being sub par. If you are a prospective employer, your first question to an unpaid intern might be "Why weren't they willing to pay you for the work you did?"
It's better to start working when young (and by that I mean really young) than to spend the first years of one's career wandering around the doldrums which are unpaid adultescent internships.
Aspiring interns probably won't be happy to hear this. After all, how are they ever going to enter the workforce if not through the dreary backrooms where they are forced to reload printers, take phone calls from angry constituents, and pass out the pizzas? I wish I could offer them an alternative, but for the moment there isn't one other than maybe staying at Mom and Dad's house and starting a blog. Perhaps they could get in a bit of traveling if they can collect enough money for it.
This doesn't mean there is nothing that can be done to help them. It's just that, until we begin to reconstitute the rules for the workforce, there is not a lot that tomorrow's yuppies can do to help themselves. This is why it is probably time to bring back child and teenage labor. Yes, you read that right and, no, I am not talking about child labor that looks like this. There is not even much adult labor that looks like that anymore; even manufacturing is increasingly done by robots. Playing football in high school is probably more likely to lead to a serious injury than any of the work performed at most occupations. Instead, let's replace meaningless office internships with younger labor.
Of course, it isn't technically illegal for kids to do clerical work in offices, but there are a lot of barriers prohibiting a 13- or 14-year-old from ever working in one. The public schools remain fairly inflexible, though kids can probably learn as much from working at a job as they can from working at school, and virtual high schools provide opportunities for this flexibility. There is also the problem of the minimum wage. We shouldn't pay these young workers nothing, but no employer is going to pay a 13- or 14-year-old $7.25/hour (or is it $9 now?). The federal government does not even believe that an entry level position should receive that compensation, or they would probably pay a private in basic combat training twice his or her monthly wages.
Having said all this, a world where teenagers and tweenagers were encouraged to spend more time making money would probably be better for them. As one who has worked at some job since age 14, I can say that making money, when you don't have to worry about kids, a spouse, debts, rent, or even food can be quite useful when Mr. Debt Collector does actually come years later when you graduate from college. Sometimes, it can prevent going into debt in the first place. Work experience also teaches valuable skills that most schools do not: among them are how to speak, how to listen, and how to show up on time.
Would this lead to an exploitative world? One where teenagers got paid $3/hour for performing menial tasks and risking extreme paper cuts? Maybe. But to that I would say that unpaid internships already represent such a world. It is just that we pay 25-year-olds zero dollars instead of three and do this to them when they already have lots of debt to pay off, rather than when it is early enough for them to avoid it.
Of course, no one will probably be trying to revise labor laws to make a statement any time soon. A Rand Paul administration might, but don't hold your breath. Those White House interns might not be paid, but they sure are handy.