Money at 30: Is There Really Value in Working for Free?
If there’s one thing the vast majority of people in our increasingly divided nation can agree on these days it’s that working hard and not getting paid for it sucks. That’s probably why, in addition to calls to raise to minimum wage to $15 an hour or higher, unpaid internships have more or less gone the way of the dodo (a trend certainly accelerated by a slew of former intern-related lawsuits in recent years). On the surface this might seem like a win — after all, everyone wants to be paid what they’re worth. However, in my personal experience, I’ve found that working for free can actually be more financially beneficial in the grand scheme of things.
First I should say that I don’t mean working off the clock at your hourly job, which is clearly illegal. What I’m referring to is being open to unpaid gigs, internships, or freelancing opportunities that may not include a short-term paycheck but could offer long-term rewards. While there’s no way to know for sure if taking a gamble and working for free will (literally) pay off, here are a few things to consider.
Are you gaining new skills?
Many of the lawsuits filed against various employers from former interns revolve around the accusation that said employers didn’t live up to their end of the internship deal. They claim that, instead of teaching the interns and preparing them for a real job in their given field, they were merely used to do perform menial tasks they gained nothing from. While this is a sad reality in some cases, it’s unfortunate that we’ve essentially thrown the baby out with the bathwater and demonized internships overall.
The truth is that, for all of the companies that may have taken advantage of internships, plenty of others have provided workers with opportunities they might not have received otherwise. Being Mr. Pop Culture, my mind immediately wants to cite shows like Friends or films like The Pursuit of Happyness that feature characters taking on internships in fields they know little about in hopes that the experience will turn into a career (spoilers: in both cases, they do). Yes, I’m aware that these are fictional situations but I too have benefitted from working alongside those willing to take the time to teach me new this that I could build into or apply to a career. In fact, with my time in college being both brief and scattered, I’d argue that these experiences were instrumental if not essential in getting me to where I am today.
Are you making strong connections?
Sometimes it’s less about the skills you gain from doing unpaid work but the networking you get to engage in. In my eyes, doing a gig for free can serve as a type of interview for future work. This is to say that, if the people you’re working with are impressed by you, there’s a chance they might be able to suggest you for paid positions should the opportunity arise.
A perfect example of this concept can be found in Los Angeles where I lived for several years. When I was first looking to begin working on sets, I took on some free P.A. (production assistant) jobs on low to no-budget shorts and web series. On several occasions, these unpaid (save the free food that many in L.A. survive on) days were where I met people that would later hire me for paid work. While I didn’t end up pursuing production full-time in the end, this method of parlaying free gigs into paid ones as my network grew was what provided me an income for the more than a year.
Were there some shows I worked on that ended up being a waste of my time? Of course. But, more often than not, working for free was well worth my time as it gave me the opportunity to show what I could do. I believe the same thing applies to jobs outside of Hollywood and that, second only to hard work, networking is the most important factor to success in any career.
Are you taking a chance on yourself?
Another reason you might end up working for free isn’t because someone doesn’t have the money to pay you but because no one has actually hired you — at least not yet. This is what I experienced when I decided to write a book. Without a publisher that would pay me an advance on my manuscript, not only was I not getting paid for months of writing but I also had to spend money to get the book produced. However my hard work was eventually rewarded as sales rolled in and other opportunities presented themselves as a result.
Regardless of what you ultimately want to accomplish, there’s sure to be a time when you’ll need to invest in yourself. This may include putting in time on a project of your own even when no one is paying you to do it. All you can hope for is that your investment will pay dividends down the road.
No matter how you slice it, working for free is never a very appealing proposition when first presented. That said, there are plenty of times when internships, other unpaid positions, or putting the “free” in freelancing can ultimately lead to much bigger, better, and more worthwhile things. While your mileage may vary and there are mistakes to be made, be sure to consider the potential benefits of working for free before simply dismissing the opportunity.