In one generation, working for free for people who can pay you went from something laughable, to something wealthy people were doing in a few fields, to something everyone was recommended to do, to something almost everyone has to do. Entry-level jobs were replaced with unpaid internships. That same monopoly on opportunity reshaped lower-skill labor. Jobs that once offered on-site training now require college degrees. In response, universities ramp up tuition, knowing that students have little choice but to pay to compete. Instead of options, there is one path to professional success — one exorbitantly expensive path.

The values of the wealthy elite became the rules that everyone had to live by.

At the same time, the rising cost of living made it “normal” to pay a lot of money for basic things. Ordinary life has been redefined as a luxury good. Health care and home ownership are unaffordable for most young people. This makes them feel desperate, particularly when they begin adult life saddled with stratospheric debt. They feel they have no options but to play along, even if that means being party to their own exploitation.

–Sarah Kendzior on the “prestige economy“.