Taking on unpaid work is a very controversial topic. It involved many threads of nuance from financial privilege (“only middle class kids can afford to take on unpaid work”) to ageism (“anyone over 25 should not still be doing unpaid work”).
Free work has become synonymous with exploitation: false promises of fame and exposure. Getting something for free sounds great, doing something for free, or worse exposure, less so.
Unpaid work seems at its highest in the creative sectors. This is because of two main factors. Firstly, due to the state of the economy and the volume of creative projects, budgets are lower. Secondly, companies tend to exploit the fact that so many people are looking for career opportunities and play us off against each other in a race to the bottom on payment and working conditions.
A few years ago, filmmakers Nathalie Berger and Leo Davi Hyde released a documentary about their experience of unpaid internships. The two found themselves living in tents, unable to pay rent in a global capital. “We emailed hundreds of employers of unpaid interns, asking them to take part: none would go on the record. It’s rare to hear an employer speak publicly about how great unpaid internships are today. This shows the debate has been won: not paying young people for their work is a moral (and often legal) failure and is pretty much indefensible.”
Furthermore, the World Economic Forum also reckons that creativity will be the third most important skill for future jobs by 2020 – so why are being unpaid for work that can be emotionally taxing. In all honesty, even if you come from a privileged background and have financial help, surely everyone does better work when they are motivated to receive a paycheck?
Another part of the frustration stems from the dreaded cultural stigma that continues to perpetuate. The stigma being creatives having to reaffirm that a creative career is more than just a “hobby”. Yet in the UK alone, in 2017 it was estimated that free work was costing freelancers an average of £5,394 a year; 90% of arts internships still remain unpaid; and in a 2018 survey, a massive 54% of illustrators said they had worked for free, but wouldn’t again. You should never work for no money, but somehow, it seems like we still are. Seemingly, this is a debate that just won’t die in the creative circles.
There are some arguments, surprisingly, in favour of unpaid work. American designer Paula Scher told AIGA Eye on Design that the things she did for free over the years were “very significant parts” of her body of work. But Paula insists, you have to set boundaries. “You’re not going to collaborate. You’re going to do the job the way you think the job is gonna be done – and they’re gonna use it,” she added. “That’s a power thing. That’s not a victim thing.” So, if the unpaid work means that you get to build a portfolio with a team, where you get to be the creative director, and lead the photo shoot in a way you wouldn’t have the upper hand to if being paid, then maybe it’s worth it?