This morning, I noticed someone had posted on a job site, looking for work experience. She advertised being open to both paid and unpaid opportunities and someone had responded underneath her post strongly arguing against ever working for free:

“Never, ever do unpaid work, the ‘exposure’ trap doesn’t work either. Don’t sell yourself short. If you want to write start your own blog, that way you are working on your own terms, gaining experience and developing your voice. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, don’t you dare give it away for free. You can guarantee those asking for free work are getting paid, so you should be getting paid, at the correct rate. They want your skills they pay.”

I know a lot of people will tell you the same thing. It’s a popular piece of career advice these days, “never work for free.” But it is advice which can be quite harmful. 

The implication when people adamantly say “never work for free”, is that the only value to be gained from work is money. 

I’m not naive and appreciate we all need money, but often we want to be paid for something before we’re really valuable. Say you want to be a writer? If you’re fresh out of journalism school and don’t land a paying position, then what are your options? If you believe in following this advice, there are plenty of positions you’ll be qualified for which will pay you, however, they’re more likely to be administrative roles than creative writing ones. Does that mean they are more valuable to you than unpaid writing opportunities?

The suggestion to write on a platform you might be able to profit from, such as your own blog, is a good one in theory. However it may not be the best option in reality.

While it’s easier than ever to create a website, it will still cost you to host and maintain the site. These costs aren’t high but they are constant. It also involves time and effort to do the site maintenance. Time which could be spent purely writing. Then there’s the fact that there are an estimated 500million Blogs currently in existence on the internet. These are all fighting for a share of traffic, so the likelihood of people seeing your writing is much greater if you’re publishing on a platform which already has been developing its following and search rankings.

The actor Brad Pitt is worth an estimated $300million, largely earned from acting roles. Before he landed any paying roles, he worked three jobs simultaneously to cover the cost of his acting classes. I’m sure most people in his position would have deemed the acting classes not worth that investment. There was certainly no guarantee they would be a good investment financially, but if you really want to progress in a field, you have to find ways to develop in it.  For a while, that may mean offering your time or energy for free. 

The unfortunate reality is, creative industries often do not make money, so the well-intentioned advice above of, “you can guarantee those asking for free work are getting paid”, may not be true. At least when it comes to start-ups and creative endeavours. 

The flip-side of this, is when it comes to full time roles. These should not be offered or accepted unpaid. Not only will it be unsustainable for you, but these positions also have a bigger impact on equality in society. If only people with financial backing from family members, can afford to take opportunities, then we start to get in serious trouble. For large corporations to offer long term unpaid internships is disrespectful as the salary is a minor cost to them. But not doing anything for free out of principal? Watch yourself get left behind.

I have gained SO much from things I have done for free and whilst I’m relieved I now have a comfortable salary, I continue working for free and will do so, probably forever if I feel there is something beyond economic value I gain from that time spent.