I've done my share of free work. If all the people I've ever done free work for came out of the woodwork and offered to pay me even minimum wage for that time, I'd probably be able to buy the flat I rent. And maybe a Shiba Inu puppy while I'm at it.
It was only when, earlier this year, I started actually charging for my work (because I'm now an adult with bills to pay and a cat to feed) that I realized something.
Working for free is kind of selfish.
Let me explain.
Free work is a Tragedy of the Commons situation. If you're unfamiliar with the work of Garrett Hardin (which everyone should read), the Tragedy of the Commons is a story that goes like this. There's a village with a piece of common land where locals are allowed to graze their animals. This was a standard feature of most British towns in the past. There are still common areas near me where people keep horses, pigs, cows etc. In the village Hardin describes, the land can support the number of animals that everyone keeps. It's all good.
But there's a problem. Over time, people realize that they can buy or breed more animals and put them on the common land. After all, this benefits them and the actions of any individual aren't going to damage the land. Bit by bit, people accumulate more and more animals. At some point, the land is destroyed by overgrazing. No one can keep animals on it anymore. The idea is that, although acquiring more animals is beneficial for any particular individual, it's harmful to everyone.
Think of it this way. If you've flown recently, you may have noticed that as soon as the flight starts boarding, everyone queues up at the gate. Although seats are allocated and you're going to leave at the same time regardless of where you are in the line, everyone does it. My brother always makes a point of staying sat down until the last other person has handed over their boarding pass and gotten on the plane. Queuing for a plane s a Tragedy of the commons situation. If everyone gets in a line, the plane leaves on time. If everyone refused to queue and waited for the other people to go first, planes would never leave on time. So we all go through the rigmarole of pointlessly standing in a line. Even though it's beneficial for a particular individual to wait for everyone else to go, it would cause problems if we all did it.
Free work is much the same. Doing it is usually beneficial for any particular individual. I won't deny that free work is a fantastic way to gain experience and learn skills when you're young or unfamiliar with an area. It's an amazing way to get a practical education. The oodles of free work I did taught me far more than a degree would have done. While I write for a living now, I didn't learn to write at school or college. I learned the skills I now use for my work during the thousands of evenings I spent hunched over a laptop writing for websites and magazines, or sorting stock in a charity shop, or making coffee for homeless people, or cleaning out litter trays at a cat shelter, or cutting down gorse bushes, or shooting photographs for some pretty cool brands, or managing other people's social media, or organising books in the library, or pricing stock at a pet store. All that time gave me the sort of education money can't buy.
But working for free also ends up hurting everyone in your industry. It sets a dubious standard. If employers know they can always find someone willing to do a job for free, why would they bother paying anyone? If there are always people willing to contribute for free to a site, why pay writers? If startups know they can put an unpaid internship that's basically an entry-level job on Angel List and someone will take it, why not take on intern after intern instead of employing someone?
Creative people are particularly screwed when it comes to free work. There is almost always someone willing to write, paint, shoot pictures, dance or whatever unpaid. Someone who wants exposure or to learn or to get a foot in the door. It's one reason why making a living as a creative is, in some ways, harder than ever.
I get contacted almost daily with requests for free work. Someone just started a writing platform and wants me to write posts for it. A startup needs someone to run their blog. Someone has founded a magazine which they claim has a million monthly readers and yet somehow doesn’t have any money to pay writers (in which case that’s either not true or if they haven’t figured out how to make money from it then it’s not going anywhere.) I’ve had people contact me about paid freelance jobs I’ve applied for saying that, yes the listing said it was paid, but they no longer have the budget and will I do it for free? Brands get in touch asking me to write a blog post about their product- usually something that has no relevance to me, like a blender. Someone literally asked if I would fly myself to San Francisco to write about an event they were hosting.
Thankfully, not everyone is like that. You get better at vetting clients. But far too many people are. For myself, and most people working in creative fields, it's a long slog to find clients that take you seriously.
The rationales people use for this are bizarre. I rarely know if they actually believe them. Usually, they promise ‘exposure’, whatever that means. Or that it ‘won’t take long!’ Or ‘if you’re really good we might pay you after a year.’ Of course, none of these people would ever ask a barista to make their coffee for free because they’re going to post it on Instagram and that’s great exposure for the shop. Or tell a supermarket worker that they want one bowl of cereal and not a box so can they tip out the part they want and pay for that? Toggl made a great video about this.
Sure, an unpaid internship working for Elon Musk would be an incredible opportunity. In some cases, it’s unpaid because the cost of the person’s time in training you is high (this is rare of course.) If it’s for a friend or family member with whom you have a good, reciprocal relationship, go for it if you can. Volunteering for a nonprofit is an amazing thing to do. If you are starting your own business, it’s natural that there will be a lot of work you earn nothing for at the beginning. But only if it’s a genuine prospect.
In most cases, free work is outright exploitation. It’s unethical on the part of the people who ask for it. And its selfish on the part of the people who agree to do it. It implies your work is worthless. No one really values free work. And many unpaid internships advertised are technically illegal if you take a look at the required standards.