Work for free if you want to, but don’t work for nothing

This debate kicked off again recently thanks to a New York Times piece, presumably paid, by Tim Kreider, calling unpaid writing online “slavery”. It’s not, of course, but there are issues here: skilled professionals struggle to make a living, or to charge what their time is worth, while brands build businesses on the back of workers who don’t know what they’re worth, who are disempowered from organising for appropriate remuneration, or who are willing to forgo financial compensation for the sake of other concerns.

For many people trying to break into journalism or other creative industries – a group that doesn’t include established folks like Tim Kreider – sometimes working for free is the only option, and let me be clear: that sucks. It means certain careers are only open to those with the financial wherewithal to support themselves through months, sometimes years, of unpaid work. It means creative jobs are increasingly only open to the upper classes, and that’s a problem for the arts and for the media.

For others who work part-time or outside their day jobs in creative spaces – hobbyists, craft workers, dabblers, amateurs, the folks who couldn’t afford to give up the paying work to gamble on the unpaid – there are issues of accessibility and the appropriateness of charging for small works, which take some tricky balancing with the need for artists to earn a living. The situation is starting to evolve: it’s interesting to see Anna Anthropy charging for a new Twine game; it’s good to see Forest Ambassador getting a funding route through Patreon. There’s a sliding scale between free and paid, now. More people have the option of pursuing many paths at once, building portfolio lives rather than diving into singular pursuits; that’s a reaction in part to the closing down of paying routes into creative careers. It’s becoming easier to make small creative projects pay for themselves – so long as you own them and they don’t live on someone else’s platforms.

Working for websites or companies that don’t guarantee you anything but generic ‘exposure’ isn’t usually anything more than a gamble. If you’re going to write for no money for the New York Times in a piece which you know will grace their international front and which links back to your personal work, that might be pretty exciting. But if you’re writing something that might get a thousand views or fewer for a site that doesn’t do much to jazz up your CV, then it’s worth asking yourself whether you’d be better off cutting out the middle man and putting it on your own blog. After all, big media companies don’t own exposure on the net; if anything can go viral online, it’s worth asking yourself if you’d rather those views went to your portfolio site rather than someone else’s platform.

And sometimes working for money works out as working for nothing, when you take other factors into account. Working a low-salary job that doesn’t pay overtime but that requires an hour or two every day extra of your time, or where the commute is also costly in terms of time and cash. Taking on a commission that balloons far beyond its original remit, taking up more and more of your time, so that the rewards no longer outweigh the stress and the energy and the work involved in completing it.

There’s a sliding scale between unpaid labour that offers tangible benefits, and straight-up exploitation. Coffee-fetching internships on film sets seem straightforwardly the latter, but most unpaid entry-level work isn’t so clear cut. When it comes to making the decision to take something on, I’m in a much more privileged position than most; I can afford to turn down opportunities that don’t quite fit my priorities, and I can decide to do things that leave me out of pocket because I want to do them. But wherever you draw your own personal lines, whether through desire or necessity, there’s a list of things worth thinking about before you commit.

Does it give me an opportunity to learn, or to teach? Is it for charity, or non-profit? Is it going to be fun? Is it going to be interesting? Is it going to lead to paid work – and if the folks involved say it will, do I have any confidence in their assertions? Is it creative work that I’ll enjoy? Is it going to give me genuine opportunities to make connections, or to raise my profile, or to put my work in front of people who I would like to see it? Is my expertise easy to get from other sources? Can I reuse the results? Can I afford the time away from work, family and other commitments, or the extra hours I’d need to put in outside work, or the travel? Is it going to be a pleasant and relatively stress-free experience?

If the answer to all or most of those questions is ‘no’, then: fuck you, pay me.

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Mary Hamilton

I'm an operations specialist, analytics nerd, recovering journalist, consultant, writer, game designer, company founder, and highly efficient pedant.

4 thoughts on “Work for free if you want to, but don’t work for nothing”

  1. I allowed myself to take on a multitude of free ‘jobs’ in the TV industry – assuming the contacts I would make would far outweigh in value any money I could possibly earn. After almost six months working (mostly) for free, I must’ve earned only £500 through long-overdue invoices and smaller, badly paid commission work.

    I now work for a publishing business on a decent salary. When I came here, my previous experience working for free was not even commented upon, and appeared to hold no value. What it did say was that I was a chump.

    One thing I have noticed though is that it very much matters upon WHO you work for free for. You can almost immediately tell the kind of business or company that will invest in people and one that will take on young work experience hungry students simply for cheap labour. I have never come across somebody genuinely interested in my story, where I want to be and how hard I am prepared to work to get there.

    My long foray into working for free has never led to any permanent or even semi-temporary employment. Although I will admit that it was not for nothing – it has well and truly taught me not to work for free. I’m not a naive person but am not particularly well versed in the employment behaviours of the creative industry, and so when somebody says that work experience might lead to more work ‘in the future’, I work my ass off on the off chance I might one day get paid for doing something I enjoy. More fool me.

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