I know there are quite a few grad students and academics here, so I thought people might be interested in this article from Slate, which summarizes this blog post by Alexandre Afonso, a lecturer in economics at King's College London. I have a PhD in a humanities field, so that is my frame of reference. I always knew the chances of getting a tenure-track position were very small so I looked at grad school as a chance to do something I loved for a few years. I got very lucky and my school funded PhD students with free tuition, health care, and a small but adequate stipend. For a variety of reasons, I left my last academic job without going on the job market for the next academic year. (I'm providing these details so that people understand that I'm not a bitter failed academic, but rather someone who looks back mostly fondly at my time in academia yet thinks there are serious problems in higher education.)
The premise of Afonso's article is that the structure of academia is similar to a drug gang: there is a shrinking core of relatively well-paid workers at the top and an expanding group of "outsiders" at the bottom who receive very low wages and have no job security or benefits. In both there are steady streams of people willing to enter the workforce as outsiders despite the obvious drawbacks and small chance of actually making it into the core. As a result the low-level workers are seen as disposable by those at the top, and those at the top outsource their work to those at the bottom. Afonso writes that other fields also exhibit this kind of dual labor market, but that academia is an increasingly extreme example of it as there are fewer and fewer tenured and tenure-track faculty and more and more adjuncts picking up the slack.
I don't think this analogy works when asking why young people enter these lines of work to being with. However, once we are talking about workers already in the workforce, this seems to be a pretty good metaphor, especially when you consider how difficult it is for low-level workers to leave. I would love to hear from someone with more knowledge in this area, but I would guess that once you have begun making money doing illegal activities, it can often become harder to find legal work, perhaps because you have an arrest record, because you become known in that capacity and people don't wish to take a chance on you as an employee, or because you didn't continue your education. I know first-hand that it can also be very difficult for low-level academic workers to leave, and in fact there was recently another Slate article that partially addressed this issue. It is quite common for people to move, move, and move again for a series of fellowships, VAPs, and adjuncting gigs, none of which pay enough to offset the costs of relocating. And once you've accepted the gig you are locked in for the semester or the year and therefore have little flexibility to pursue other work options. And although people with PhDs have lots of skills (research, writing, public speaking, etc.) that would theoretically be attractive to employers in other fields, they also have a gap on their resumes of nearly a decade while they are in grad school. If they wish to leave academia they are presumed too expensive or over-qualified for entry-level work, but they also lack the work experience needed for higher-level jobs. It makes a lot of sense to me that many feel their best option to continue adjuncting, even though it is very difficult to cobble together a living that way.
Part of what makes the academic system insidious is that the universities themselves create the pool of "outsiders" who they can then exploit as cheap, disposable labor. And because the universities control both the supply of labor (how many PhDs they are willing to give out each year) and the demand for labor, they can make sure that they always have lots of cheap labor available to them. This is one reason that I think labor unions for academics, from grad students on up, are important. And because the prevailing rhetoric is that more education is always better, there is always a steady stream of recent college graduates applying to grad school. I don't want to discourage people from getting PhDs in the humanities, but I do hope that those who do will consider the advice I got when I was applying: 1) don't go if you can't get funding, and 2) don't expect it to result in a career. For most applicants it takes an awful lot of privilege to be able to meet these criteria; this is a topic for another post but obviously it is a major flaw in the structure of academia.